Republican senators are focused on getting back to work, but how to protect lawmakers and staff on Capitol Hill as coronavirus cases emerge — even at the fortified White House — remains an open question.
Some senators and staff have recently come in contact with people who tested positive for the virus, including Katie Miller, press secretary to Vice President Mike Pence. Senators questioned on the topic said they believe more testing should probably be made available for those exposed, but an exact plan on mitigating the coronavirus risk has not emerged.
On Monday, President Donald Trump told reporters that White House staff are now required to wear masks in the West Wing to halt the coronavirus, though he exempted himself from that guidance. Then on Tuesday, the White House began administering 15-minute COVID-19 tests to members of the media and is continuing the nasal swab screens on a daily basis, according to press pool reports.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor Tuesday that the last two months of stay-at-home orders were never going to “permanently extinguish the virus.” It was to prevent a “rapid spike” that could have overwhelmed medical capacities of areas, the Kentucky Republican said, and the country needed to find a middle ground between “total lockdown and total normalcy.”
McConnell and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have declined an offer from the White House to get rapid testing technology on the Hill, saying in a joint statement that they did not want Congress to be put ahead of others in greater need of testing. The Senate has been operating under guidelines outlined by the Office of the Attending Physician, which include suggesting but not requiring masks be worn and requiring votes be held in a staggered fashion to honor social distancing rules.
The House is expected to return to Capitol Hill on Friday, reconvening to vote on a coronavirus relief package and a rules change to allow proxy voting.
McConnell’s office did not respond to questions on whether he received any guidance from the attending physician regarding new or changed coronavirus mitigation guidelines this week.
During a trip to Iowa last week, both of the state’s Republican senators came in contact with Pence. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, who traveled with Pence and Sen. Joni Ernst from Washington to Des Moines, said Monday he was not given any guidance to self-isolate or modify his routine.
“All I can do is take the advice of doctors,” the longtime senator said.
Grassley, according to a spokesman, was tested before boarding Air Force Two and was negative. He has followed all guidance from the vice president’s office and medical team. He is not self-isolating and has not been recommended to do so by his doctors.
Pence is not under self-quarantine. His office said that he has tested negative for the coronavirus every day, though Miller was tested and found to be negative the day before she tested positive.
Ernst’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
At a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing Tuesday, Chairman Lamar Alexander and three of the nation’s top health officials appeared via video because of exposure to infected individuals. The panel heard from some of the country’s top health officials, including Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Alexander and Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt have sought out a strategy from the attending physician to implement rapid coronavirus testing for Hill lawmakers and staff.
“I don’t think we’re at a conclusion on that yet, but I’m for rapid testing for members and staff, and I think that’s possible,” Blunt said. “The Rules Committee staff is talking to the Capitol physician about that. I think there’s a way to do it.” The Missouri Republican did not provide a timeline on when that may occur.
Senators who appeared in-person Tuesday for the HELP hearing included Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, the only known senator to have tested positive for coronavirus. Paul, who didn’t show symptoms and was around other members between his test and his positive result, has opted not to wear a mask since returning to work.
Fauci tempered Paul’s statements about workers who recovered from the coronavirus and may have some amount of immunity to reinfection, suggesting caution.
“We don’t know everything about this virus, and we really better be very careful, particularly when it comes to children,” Fauci said.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., when asked about Grassley on Monday, said “it certainly makes sense to test folks that have had contact.”
Sen. John Cornyn said he expects there will eventually be more widespread testing. But in the short term, senators who aren’t symptomatic shouldn’t cut the line and take tests from those having a hard time getting access, the Texas Republican said.
Cornyn said he expects the virus to likely change not only how the country handles work and education, but how Congress operates, pointing to several hybrid hearings in the past week in which some members and witnesses appeared remotely while others appeared in person.
“I think it’s a good thing we can demonstrate how we can safely operate,” he said. “Maybe give other people some confidence they can too.”