Pelosi stands firm amid calls to close Capitol

Pelosi stands firm amid calls to close Capitol
© Bonnie Cash

Business in the Capitol will carry on amid coronavirus concerns.

With the outbreak sparking chaos around the globe, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiUS praises British ban on China's Huawei after pressure campaign Voter fraud charges filed against GOP Rep. Steve Watkins Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel MORE (D-Calif.) on Tuesday sought to calm volatile financial markets and an anxious American public, declaring that House lawmakers would neither flee the Capitol nor extend next week’s recess.

“We are the captains of the ship. We are the last to leave,” she told rank-and-file Democrats in a closed-door meeting in the basement of the building, according to multiple sources in the room.

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Pelosi’s declaration came in response to Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerHouse GOP lawmaker tests positive for COVID-19 Texas Democrat proposes legislation requiring masks in federal facilities Nadler: Barr dealings with Berman came 'awfully close to bribery' MORE (D-N.Y.), who told his Democratic colleagues at the meeting that they should immediately decamp from Washington and return home to their districts, where they would be safer.

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

“That enhances it,” Nadler said, when asked about his wife.

Pelosi 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 more than 60 years old and the average age of House members is pushing 58.

The oldest members of both chambers — Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGraham says he will call Mueller to testify before Senate panel about Russia probe Data shows seven Senate Democrats have majority non-white staffs Bottom line MORE (D-Calif.) and Rep. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungHillicon Valley: Apple, Google launch virus tracing system | Republican says panel should no longer use Zoom | Lawmakers introduce bill to expand telehealth House lawmakers introduce bipartisan bill to expand telehealth services Campaigns face attack ad dilemma amid coronavirus crisis MORE (R-Alaska) — both turn 87 in June. Pelosi is 79 while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSara Gideon wins Democratic race to challenge Susan Collins Schumer pushes for elimination of SALT deduction cap in next coronavirus relief bill Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel MORE (R-Ky.) is 78. And several, including Rep. John LewisJohn LewisCongresswoman accidentally tweets of death of Rep. John Lewis, who's still alive IRS, taxpayers face obstacles ahead of July 15 filing deadline We must move beyond 'the rank of a mere citizen' MORE (D-Ga.), are battling cancer.

The advanced age of many lawmakers is worrisome because older adults, especially those with existing medical conditions, are the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans older than 60 to avoid crowds — advice that’s virtually impossible for members of Congress to follow.

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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 LofgrenState and local officials beg Congress to send more election funds ahead of November FEC commissioner resigns, leaving agency without a quorum again OVERNIGHT ENERGY: DOJ whistleblower says California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' | EPA won't defend policy blocking grantees from serving on boards | Minnesota sues Exxon, others over climate change MORE (D-Calif.), on steps for diminishing the coronavirus threat.

As part of that effort, Capitol physician Brian Monahan 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.

Monahan joked that his preferred greeting 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. And 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 trying to address the issue without inciting panic.

“It’s a fluid situation,” said Rep. Ami BeraAmerish (Ami) Babulal BeraDemocrats fear US already lost COVID-19 battle Karen Bass's star rises after leading police reform push The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what 'policing' means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight MORE (D-Calif.), a physician and former chief medical officer for Sacramento County, where schools have shut down over coronavirus fears.

There’s also been chatter in the Capitol that next week’s spring recess could be extended by several weeks to limit the number of people in the building. But when asked by The Hill if the House was expected to go on an extended break, Pelosi replied, “That’s not planned.”

Volatile financial markets also have been a major consideration as lawmakers debated whether to close the Capitol this week. On Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged by more than 2,000 points due to falling oil prices and coronavirus fears — the worst sell-off since the 2008 financial crisis.

Lawmakers feared that any talk of shutting down the Capitol would send Wall Street into a tailspin for a second straight day. So as Pelosi insisted that Congress would continue working through the week on a coronavirus response, President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pitches Goya Foods products on Twitter Sessions defends recusal: 'I leave elected office with my integrity intact' Former White House physician Ronny Jackson wins Texas runoff MORE traveled to the other side of the Capitol to pitch GOP senators on an economic stimulus package.

The Dow recovered 1,167.14 points, or 4.89 percent, on Tuesday, easing the panic for Wall Street and Americans nervously watching their 401(k) plans.

“Congress is the heart and soul of our democracy and we have to continue to get the work done on behalf of the people, particularly for the most vulnerable amongst us who are at risk of being afflicted by the coronavirus or are suffering catastrophic economic injury,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesReparations bill gains steam following death of George Floyd Karen Bass's star rises after leading police reform push The Hill's 12:30 Report: Supreme Court ruling marks big win for abortion rights groups MORE (D-N.Y.), one of the party’s chief messengers, told The Hill.

“The Congress is going to stay the course and do whatever is necessary to make sure we get through the coronavirus and get through the crisis,” he said.

The vast majority of Democrats are rallying behind Pelosi’s decision to remain in Washington and work through the crisis, both as a national demonstration of stability at a tumultuous time and to allow for lawmakers to move emergency legislation as the epidemic evolves. Even Rep. Alcee HastingsAlcee (Judge) Lamar HastingsBottom line Ethics panel closes investigation into Rep. Alcee Hastings's relationship with staffer The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Johns Hopkins's Jennifer Nuzzo says America needs public health crisis insurance to pay for COVID-19 victims; Protests, pandemic continue to ravage America MORE (D-Fla.), who is being treated for pancreatic cancer, said he supports the Speaker’s resolve. 

“I’m a gamer, and … this is the people’s House in the nation’s capital,” he said, advocating for Congress to maintain its schedule. “Unless the [testing] kits get out and you have a big community spread, and then we won’t have a choice.”

“It’s a work in progress and it’s a day-to-day thing, is what I’m told,” he added. 

One of Pelosi’s Bay Area allies, however, is calling on Congress to give lawmakers more flexibility when it comes to participating in committee meetings and floor votes.

Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Chris Christie says Trump team wasn't aggressive enough early in COVID-19 crisis; Tensions between White House, Fauci boil over Trump administration moves to formally withdraw US from WHO Swalwell: Trump 'makes us look like geniuses every day for impeaching him' MORE (D-Calif.) has teamed with Rep. Rick CrawfordRick CrawfordRepublicans score procedural victory on Democrats' infrastructure bill The case for renewed US engagement in Latin America Arkansas program that places unemployed guards, reservists in agriculture jobs can be a model for nation MORE (R-Ark.) to roll out the Members Operating to Be Innovative and Link Everyone bill. It would allow lawmakers to participate virtually in committee hearings and allow them to vote remotely on non-controversial suspension bills.

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They are not alone. Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalDemocrats fear US already lost COVID-19 battle Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill banning federal government use of facial recognition tech | House lawmakers roll out legislation to establish national cyber director | Top federal IT official to step down MORE (D-Wash.), a former health professional who represents the coronavirus hot spot of Seattle, urged leaders to take action to limit the spread of the virus in the Capitol, also raising the possibility of remote voting.

“I believe it’s time to move,” said Jayapal, who has described the Congress as a “petri dish for infections to spread.

“I don’t think anybody’s asleep. I think we’re all working hard to figure out what the right action is. Everybody is wide awake. The question is how do you make the determination, and that’s what’s challenging.”