Virus threat reaches into halls of Congress, clouding Senate agenda

By , Seung Min Kim and Karoun Demirjian,

The coronavirus is posing its most serious threat to Congress in months, sidelining the 87-year-old Senate president pro tempore, throwing a cloud over the end-of-year congressional agenda and raising sharp questions about public health precautions inside the Capitol.

Tuesday’s diagnosis of Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) came less than 24 hours after he had presided over the opening of the Senate, led the Pledge of Allegiance, delivered two speeches to a sparse audience — and later moved around the crowded Senate floor after casting a vote.

None of the fellow senators he encountered during his activities this week publicly announced plans to self-quarantine, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) moved to recess his body Wednesday, a day earlier than planned, for an extended holiday break. That decision, GOP aides said, was prompted by the attendance issues surrounding the coronavirus threat.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said she saw no need for senators to quarantine “unless they have some sort of direct exposure” to Grassley. Ernst and Grassley were among a group of Senate Republican leaders who held their weekly meeting Monday evening inside the Capitol, albeit in a larger-than-usual space to allow for social distancing.

Capitol doctors advised that a quarantine “wasn’t necessary,” Ernst said.

The minimal response to Grassley’s infection diagnosis reflects a business-as-usual approach that has been on display all year inside the Capitol, particularly in the tradition-bound Senate — where McConnell has instituted basic social-distancing measures and urged mask-wearing but otherwise maintained the status quo.

Senate committees can conduct hearings via video conference under the current procedures, but senators still must cast their votes in person on the floor, where mask use is suggested but not required. Republicans also continue to hold in-person, if distanced, lunches multiple times a week inside a large Capitol Hill hearing room; Democrats have conducted their regular meetings by conference call since March.

The Democratic-controlled House has been more rigorous. There, mask use is required on the floor and members may have a colleague cast their vote by proxy under special rules imposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Six House members announced positive coronavirus tests in the past week, though most have not traveled to Washington. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), at 87 the oldest House member, was recently hospitalized with covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, after initially playing down the pandemic’s seriousness.

The dynamic in the U.S. Capitol highlights the mixed messages being sent by many of the nation’s top leaders, who are taking an often-inconsistent approach to the same restrictions that public health officials are telling Americans are critical to slowing the virus.

That lax attitude has trickled down to individual senators, such as outgoing Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who gathered 21 aides for a tightly packed, maskless farewell photo on a Capitol staircase Wednesday evening before Senate staffers broke up the gathering.

The Senate floor usually is a place where senators congregating for votes embrace and gather in clusters, but as the pandemic raged in the spring, senators heeded calls to spread out their visits to the floor and refrain from kibitzing.

Now, as nationwide coronavirus infections reach a new peak, that caution has been largely abandoned by senators of both parties, who could be seen on the floor all this week engaged in extended private conversations at close quarters.

Most wore masks — including Grassley on Monday as he descended to the well, cast his vote, then exchanged a friendly pat with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). Earlier, however, Grassley was maskless as he fulfilled his usual duties as president pro tempore, gaveling the Senate to order and leading the Pledge from the rostrum, perched just above the seats of several clerks.

Shortly afterward, Grassley descended to deliver a brief floor speech highlighting the importance of covid-19 prevention. “No community is immune,” he said. “Wash your hands; limit your activity outside your household; social distance; wear a mask. We are going to get through this together, but we need everyone to do their part.”

On Wednesday, Grassley said in a tweet that he remained “symptom free & in isolation.” He added, “I continue to feel good. Thx for all the messages of encouragement & prayers.”

McConnell’s office declined to comment on precautions being taken — or not taken — as a result of Grassley’s diagnosis. But several senators and aides cited the advice of the congressional attending physician, Brian P. Monahan, in the decision to eschew quarantines this week.

Aides who have been in contact with Monahan’s office, and spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect the privacy of affected senators, said they were told their contact with Grassley was too fleeting to require quarantine.

Several described a standard that appears to match guidelines promulgated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, requiring quarantine only for those who have been within six feet of an infected individual for 15 minutes or more, if that contact comes within 48 hours before the person’s diagnosis or symptoms.

Monahan told Manchin that “because the interaction was brief and masked, there was little to no risk of transmission,” Manchin spokeswoman Sam Runyon said. “Senator Manchin continues to wear masks in public and practice social distancing as advised by” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who attended the Monday evening leadership meeting, said she is abiding by the rules. “We’re following guidelines that have come out,” Fischer said. “I think it’s important to follow guidelines.”

But more than eight months into the pandemic, Monahan has not publicly explained his advice or standards for protecting the thousands of lawmakers and staffers who work on Capitol Hill, even as McConnell and Pelosi use his assessments to justify disparate decisions on health policy at the Capitol.

Last Friday, for instance, Pelosi cited Monahan’s advice to defend her decision to schedule a seated dinner for new Democratic House members in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall; the event was canceled amid withering criticism. House Republicans went forward with their own event in the same location two days later, and on Tuesday, they held an in-person leadership election attended by more than 200 members, with the blessing of Monahan’s office.

Attendees at that event were presented with a one-page advisory from Monahan’s office, noting that the D.C. city government had provided a waiver to allow the meeting to go forward. “Your cooperation with public health coronavirus prevention guidelines is critical to allow the waiver to proceed,” it read.

Keith Pray, an aide to Monahan, declined to comment Wednesday on the issues surrounding the Grassley diagnosis, explaining that Monahan “does not provide interviews/statements.”

The threat of a potential superspreader inside the Capitol walls is not new. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) tested positive in March, prompting criticism from many of his colleagues for his decision to continue moving about the Capitol complex — including a trip to the House gym — after experiencing symptoms but before receiving his test result.

No other senators disclosed infections that could be traced to Paul, but Sens. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) both described coming down with covid-like symptoms around that time and later tested positive for the virus’s antibodies.

Grassley’s positive test comes at an especially sensitive time for McConnell and Senate Republicans, who are looking to close out the Trump presidency by pushing through a final tranche of Republican judicial and other nominations before President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20. A broader spate of GOP absences could threaten such moves.

That was vividly illustrated on Tuesday, when the absences of Grassley and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla), who quarantined himself after exposure to the virus in Florida, led to the unexpected rejection of controversial Federal Reserve nominee Judy Shelton on a 49-to-48 vote — with Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the vice president-elect, casting the deciding vote.

Also at risk are several judicial nominations, threatening to limit McConnell’s transformation of the federal courts under Trump. Grassley’s absence prompted the Senate Judiciary Committee to postpone a business meeting Thursday where several nominations might have been advanced.

Six federal district judge nominees are awaiting floor votes, and the Judiciary Committee has held a hearing on four Trump judicial nominees beyond that.

Must-pass bills such as the yearly Pentagon authorization and extension of federal spending authority are also on tap for the coming weeks, though those measures are likely to be less divisive, making senators’ absences less damaging.

The partisan tensions surrounding the covid-19 threat, however, are unlikely to subside after Congress’s Thanksgiving recess next week. On Monday evening, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) confronted Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) for not wearing a mask while presiding on the Senate rostrum, and on Wednesday, he criticized McConnell for trying to confirm Shelton during the pandemic.

“He keeps the Senate in session, he puts essential workers at risk, all to try to ram through an unqualified nominee,” Brown said.

Similar sentiments were expressed by other Democrats, including Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), who said there have been “too many gatherings that have been sanctioned by Republican leadership” and called for a more serious look at remote proceedings.

“For these nominations, with all due respect, bringing us together for this?” Cardin said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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