January 16, 2021

As Trump faces coronavirus diagnosis, congressional leaders seek to show it’s business as usual

“Full steam ahead with the fair, thorough, timely process that the nominee, the Court, & the country deserve,” McConnell wrote on Twitter after speaking by phone with Trump, declaring that the president was in “good spirits.”

Pelosi held a normal day of business while awaiting her coronavirus test result, conducting interviews with the media and continuing negotiations on a financial relief package.

She predicted that she would be fine because her only contact was with a Trump administration official, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who had tested negative.

“Out of [an] abundance of caution I was tested. . . . I have concern about the test, because obviously the tests that are happening at the White House are not as accurate as they should be,” Pelosi said during an MSNBC interview Friday morning.

Shortly after 4 p.m. her spokesman announced she had tested negative.

Home in Kentucky, McConnell refused to tell local reporters whether he had taken a coronavirus test, despite meetings with top White House officials who have been in close contact with Trump.

The Senate is slated to return Monday evening for votes on judicial nominations and several high-profile hearings next week — including one before the Judiciary Committee, which has two members, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), in quarantine after positive tests.

Beneath the facade of confidence, however, the two leaders faced growing calls from their allies to implement more safety protocols inside the Capitol, particularly a stricter testing regimen than the current voluntary system in place.

“This episode demonstrates that the Senate needs a testing and contact tracing program for senators, staff, and all who work in the Capitol complex. We simply cannot allow the administration’s cavalier attitude to adversely affect this branch of government,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.

Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the ranking Republican on the House Administration Committee, which oversees operations, reiterated his call for a testing system throughout the Capitol that the Air Force and some private health companies have offered to Congress.

Davis said that if Pelosi and McConnell fear the political backlash of a special testing program for lawmakers, then they should institute the program for the thousands of employees who still report to work each day.

“That’s going to help the people who protect this House every day. Let’s begin to protect them, too. And that includes the Capitol Police, the Architect of the Capitol employees, the folks who are here on the grounds, like members of the media,” Davis said.

On Friday, the Capitol’s Office of the Attending Physician updated its guidelines to say that lawmakers who exhibit symptoms or believe they have come in contact with someone who tested positive can receive tests, along with staff and media who have come in contact with someone who tested positive.

The House held two roll call votes Friday morning, stretched across more than 90 minutes to allow for social distancing, as has become standard practice since the pandemic hit Congress in mid-March. Almost 20 lawmakers have announced testing positive or were presumed to have the coronavirus, along with a couple who later tested positive for coronavirus antibodies.

The House and Senate have allowed for committee hearings to be conducted at least partially by remote video conferences, and the House changed its voting rules to allow those lawmakers present in the chamber to cast a proxy vote for members who want to stay home out of health concerns related to Congress.

In the Senate, Republicans continue to meet in person three times a week for luncheons, although in a room that is much larger than the usual gathering place to space out the tables.

Pelosi’s aides declined to address the calls for more testing, while McConnell suggested that Congress is doing enough by adhering to social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’ve got our masks on, we practice social distancing. We’ve got a few members quarantined at various times but we’ve been able to function,” McConnell said, dismissing suggestions that the Senate postpone next week’s session as a precaution.

“So far the disease has not kept us from operating as we would normally and there’s no reason to expect that to be the case in the foreseeable future,” he said.

But many Republicans continue to interact with Trump and senior officials at the White House, where those CDC guidelines are often dismissed. And some Democrats lashed out at a small bloc of House Republicans who do not wear masks unless they are in a place where it is mandatory — such as voting on the House floor — and attend events such as Trump’s GOP nomination acceptance speech in late August, with 1,500 attendees on the South Lawn.

“I’ve stopped going to in-person Judiciary Committee meetings because of the number of members on that side who’ve either tested positive or just refuse to wear masks there, and it’s selfish. It’s reckless, and it furthers this virus,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (R-Calif.) told reporters.

Many Republican senators were in attendance at the White House Rose Garden on Saturday evening as Trump announced Barrett as his Supreme Court pick. Lee was spotted without a mask as he interacted closely with other people at the event, where not all of the roughly 150 guests were tested for the virus beforehand. Tillis also attended the White House event.

Several of lawmakers’ offices did not return a request for comment Friday on whether they were being tested or quarantining out of caution, but aides to Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said they took diagnostic tests, which returned negative results. Blackburn was also in Cleveland for the presidential debate on Tuesday night and was photographed in a selfie with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, neither wearing masks.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) also attended a White House event on Monday in which Trump promoted a new electric pickup truck manufactured by Lordstown Motors, based in northeastern Ohio. Portman’s aides said he tested negative Friday.

Meanwhile, more than 30 senators — all but one of them Republicans — have sat down with Barrett during the traditional courtesy visits undertaken by Supreme Court nominees on Capitol Hill. Rather than in individual Senate offices, the meetings have been held in the ornate Mansfield room in the Capitol, allowing enough space for Barrett, the senators, a handful of aides and members of the media to socially distance.

Occasionally, Barrett has worn a mask, but often she does not. The same is true of White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who has accompanied the judge on her nominee meetings with senators. The meetings were spread out over three days this week.

Deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere said Friday that Barrett is tested daily for the coronavirus, testing negative most recently on Friday morning. Her last direct contact with the president was last weekend, when she was at the White House for her Rose Garden announcement.

Barrett had tested positive for the coronavirus in the summer before her nomination, according to three officials familiar with the diagnosis. The CDC says it has limited information about reinfection with the virus and is working to learn more, but genome sequencing has confirmed at least two cases of reinfection.

Due to the exposure, Schumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, said in a joint statement Friday that it was “premature” for Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to plan to proceed with Barrett’s confirmation hearings in-person and said that virtual hearings were unacceptable for a nominee for a lifetime judicial vacancy.

“It’s critical that Chairman Graham put the health of senators, the nominee and staff first — and ensure a full and fair hearing that is not rushed, not truncated, and not virtual,” Schumer and Feinstein said. “Otherwise this already illegitimate process will become a dangerous one.”

Aides to Graham, who has not been with the president this week but spoke with him earlier Friday, had no immediate comment on the demand from Democrats. But earlier Friday, Republican staff said there was no scheduling change to the confirmation hearings, which are slated to begin Oct. 12.

Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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