Pelosi rejects calls to shutter Capitol: 'We are the captains of this ship'

With the Capitol consumed by anxiety over the coronavirus, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerHouse Judiciary Committee postpones hearing with Barr amid coronavirus outbreak House Democrats plead with key committee chairman to allow remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic Pelosi rejects calls to shutter Capitol: 'We are the captains of this ship' MORE (D-N.Y.) rose in a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday and told his Democratic colleagues they should leave Washington and return home to their districts, where they would be safer.  

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMeadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House Pelosi floats undoing SALT deduction cap in next coronavirus bill Overnight Health Care: More states order residents to stay at home | Trump looks to sell public on coronavirus response | Judges block Ohio, Texas abortion bans | Dems eye infrastructure in next relief bill MORE (D-Calif.) immediately quashed the idea, according to multiple sources in the room.  

“We are the captains of the ship. We are the last to leave,” she told her caucus, borrowing a line uttered moments earlier by Rep. Mikie SherrillRebecca (Mikie) Michelle SherrillBiden rolls out over a dozen congressional endorsements after latest primary wins Elbow bumps, Spock salutes: How Congress is dealing with coronavirus Overnight Health Care — Presented by Philip Morris International — Trump, Congress struggle for economic deal amid coronavirus threat | Pelosi rejects calls to shutter Capitol | Coronavirus emerges as 2020 flashpoint MORE (D-N.J.), a Navy veteran. 

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The California Democrat and her leadership team have been feeling pressure from Nadler and others to take steps to avert a coronavirus outbreak in the Capitol, where two-thirds of senators are older than 60 and the average age of House members is 57.6 years. 

The oldest members of both chambers — Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDemocratic lawmakers demand government stop deporting unaccompanied children DOJ probing stock transactions made by lawmakers ahead of coronavirus crisis: report Lobbying frenzy connected to stimulus sparks backlash MORE (D-Calif.) and Rep. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungDon Young dismissed 'beer virus,' told seniors to 'go forth with everyday activities' Pelosi stands firm amid calls to close Capitol Pelosi rejects calls to shutter Capitol: 'We are the captains of this ship' MORE (R-Alaska) — both turn 87 in June. Pelosi is 79, while Nadler is 72 years old. And several, including Rep. John LewisJohn LewisGeorgia makes it easier to get mail-in ballots after delaying primary Kennedy said DSCC prevented him from helping Democrats flip GOP seats Pelosi stands firm amid calls to close Capitol MORE (D-Ga.), are battling cancer.

Nadler’s motives for district-based work are largely personal: His wife is sick and undergoing chemotherapy, sparking concerns that his frequent travel poses a threat to her well-being.

The advanced age of many lawmakers is worrisome because older adults, especially those with existing medical conditions, are the most vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urged Americans older than 60 to avoid crowds — advice that’s virtually impossible for members of Congress to follow. At least 27 people have died from the virus in the United States.

The Pelosi-Nadler exchange came after House Democrats were briefed behind closed doors Tuesday morning by the congressional physician’s office, the Capitol Police and the head of the House Administration Committee, Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenHillicon Valley: FCC chief proposes 0M telehealth program | Twitter takes down posts promoting anti-malaria drugs for coronavirus| Whole Foods workers plan Tuesday strike Trump says election proposals in coronavirus stimulus bill would hurt Republican chances Democratic lawmakers demand government stop deporting unaccompanied children MORE (D-Calif.), on steps for diminishing the coronavirus threat.  

As part of that effort, the Capitol physician has been giving lawmakers a crash-course in “social distancing,” a mode of behavior that encourages members to avoid all physical contact, including handshakes, and keep a minimum of six feet between themselves and others.

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His preferred greeting, the physician joked, is Mr. Spock’s Vulcan salute from Star Trek — no contact required. 

The House Administration Committee, meanwhile, has purchased 1,500 new laptop computers for distribution to member offices, a move designed to empower more staff to work from home without violating security guidelines. More laptops are on the way.

Yet for all the briefings and expert advice, there remains an overwhelming sense of uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus — both from the public health officials seeking to prevent its spread and the Capitol Hill lawmakers hoping to address the fallout without inciting panic outside the Beltway.  

“It’s a fluid situation,” said Rep. Ami BeraAmerish (Ami) Babulal BeraDemocrats ask Trump for evidence that medical supplies are available Pelosi stands firm amid calls to close Capitol Trump, Congress struggle for economic deal under coronavirus threat MORE (D-Calif.), a physician and former chief medical officer for Sacramento County, where schools have shut down over coronavirus fears.

A key reason Democrats say they must maintain the congressional schedule is to vote on coronavirus-related legislation.

“We're keeping our schedule,” said Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineLocal news outlets struggle to survive coronavirus fallout The Hill's 12:30 Report: House to vote on .2T stimulus after mad dash to Washington Pelosi rejects calls to shutter Capitol: 'We are the captains of this ship' MORE (R.I.), the head of the Democrats’ messaging arm. “We think it's very important to stay here and do our work.” 

But no one could say for sure when the next round of legislation is coming.

"As soon as possible,” said Rep. Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyHouse Democrats unveil coronavirus economic response package Biden rolls out over a dozen congressional endorsements after latest primary wins Trump, Congress struggle for economic deal under coronavirus threat MORE (D-N.Y.), head of the House Appropriations Committee.  

There's been some disagreement about who has the ultimate authority to make the decision to close the Capitol. Pelosi said Monday that it was up to the Capitol physician and Capitol Police.  

Asked by The Hill if she would extend next week’s spring recess, Pelosi replied: “That’s not planned.” 

Endangered Democrats facing tough reelections this fall are also feeling the heat to show their constituents back home that they are working in Washington to help workers harmed by the coronavirus, including hourly workers employed by hotels, restaurants and retail stores whose roles don't allow them to work from home. 

There are “lots of conversations about whether we should go home or stay here,” freshman Rep. Dean PhillipsDean PhillipsPelosi rejects calls to shutter Capitol: 'We are the captains of this ship' Congressional leaders downplay possibility of Capitol closing due to coronavirus Democratic candidates gear up for a dramatic Super Tuesday MORE (D-Minn.), who flipped a GOP-held seat in the 2018 midterms, said as he left the meeting. “Many of us, myself included, feel we should be here, providing oversight to this administration and policy that's going to help protect the nation.”

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But asked if he felt safe working in the Capitol complex, Phillips replied: “Nobody should feel safe. We can just make our best effort to protect ourselves and those with whom we work and with whom we interact. 

“Safety is relative in an epidemic,” he said.

Updated at 6:59 p.m.