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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 PelosiSpending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 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 NadlerDemocrats accuse GSA of undermining national security by not certifying Biden win Barr sparks DOJ firestorm with election probes memo Marijuana stocks see boost after Harris debate comments 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 FeinsteinWhitehouse says Democratic caucus will decide future of Judiciary Committee The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience Durbin seeks to become top-ranking Democrat on Judiciary panel MORE (D-Calif.) and Rep. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungRep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 Capitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (R-Alaska) — both turn 87 in June. Pelosi is 79 while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellImmigration, executive action top Biden preview of first 100 days Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight McConnell pushed Trump to nominate Barrett on the night of Ginsburg's death: report MORE (R-Ky.) is 78. And several, including Rep. John LewisJohn LewisDemocrats lead in diversity in new Congress despite GOP gains Biden must look to executive action to fulfill vow to Black Americans The purposeful is political: Gen Z bowls over their doubters 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 LofgrenHillicon Valley: Four major tech issues facing the Biden administration | Pressure grows to reinstate White House cyber czar | Facebook, Google to extend political ad bans House report says lawmakers could securely cast remote votes amid pandemic Why prevailing wage reform matters for H-1B visas 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 BeraHillicon Valley: Judge's ruling creates fresh hurdle for TikTok | House passes bills to secure energy sector against cyberattacks | Biden campaign urges Facebook to remove Trump posts spreading 'falsehoods' House passes bills to secure energy sector against cyberattacks The Hill's Coronavirus Report: iBIO Chairman and CEO Thomas Isett says developing a safe vaccine is paramount; US surpasses 150,000 coronavirus deaths with roughy one death per minute 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 TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race 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 JeffriesHouse Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Nominated for another Speaker term, Pelosi says it's her last Katherine Clark secures No. 4 leadership spot for House Democrats 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 HastingsFlorida Democrat introduces bill to recognize Puerto Rico statehood referendum Poisoning of Putin opponent could test US-Moscow relationship Florida county official apologizes for social media post invoking Hitler  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 SwalwellJuan Williams: Defeated Trump is in legal peril Taylor Swift allows song to be used in campaign ad Graham says SC people of color can go anywhere in the state but 'need to be conservative, not liberal' MORE (D-Calif.) has teamed with Rep. Rick CrawfordRick CrawfordHouse Republicans ask Amtrak CEO for information on Biden's train trips House rebuffs GOP lawmaker's effort to remove references to Democrats in Capitol LWCF modernization: Restoring the promise 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 JayapalBiden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Trump, attorneys step up efforts to reverse election's outcome 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.”