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 passes bill to expedite financial disclosures from judges Unrequited rage: The demand for mob justice in the Rittenhouse trial Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Democrats prepare to grill oil execs 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 PelosiHouse approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Ocasio-Cortez: 'Embarrassment' that Democratic leaders are delaying Boebert punishment Overnight Health Care — Biden mandate faces Dem resistance 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 SherrillDegrees not debt will grow the economy Abortion rights group endorsing 12 House Democrats Democrats at odds over SALT changes 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 FeinsteinBiden administration seeks review of Trump-era approval of water pipeline What's that you smell in the Supreme Court? New variant raises questions about air travel mandates MORE (D-Calif.) and Rep. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungThanks to President Biden, infrastructure is bipartisan again — it needs to stay that way Biden signs trillion infrastructure bill into law Republican governors mostly silent on infrastructure bill MORE (R-Alaska) — both turn 87 in June. Pelosi is 79, while Nadler is 72 years old. And several, including Rep. John LewisJohn LewisDole to lie in state in Capitol Rotunda Democratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills With extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one 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 LofgrenLofgren: Many Jan. 6 panel witnesses are former Trump officials One congressional committee is rejecting partisanship to protect state votes Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — China's president to video in for climate confab 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 livid over GOP's COVID-19 attacks on Biden Major abortion rights group names new president Democrats call for removing IRS bank reporting proposal from spending bill 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 CicillineLawmakers call for investigation into proposed AT&T WarnerMedia, Discovery merger Democratic caucus chairs call for Boebert committee assignment removal House votes to censure Gosar and boot him from committees 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 LoweyTwo women could lead a powerful Senate spending panel for first time in history Lobbying world Progressives fight for leverage amid ever-slimming majority 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 PhillipsBiden touts infrastructure bill in Minnesota swing district Five takeaways: House passes Biden's sweeping benefits bill Overnight Health Care — Presented by Emergent Biosolutions — Boosters for all 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.