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 PelosiHouse rejects GOP effort to seat McCarthy's picks for Jan. 6 panel GOP brawls over Trump on eve of first Jan. 6 hearing Five things to watch as Jan. 6 panel begins its work 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 NadlerBritney Spears's new attorney files motion to remove her dad as conservator Here's what Congress is reading at the beach this summer Activists see momentum as three new states legalize marijuana 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 FeinsteinBiden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund Stripping opportunity from DC's children Progressive groups ask for town hall with Feinstein to talk filibuster MORE (D-Calif.) and Rep. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden suspends Arctic oil leases issued under Trump |  Experts warn US needs to better prepare for hurricane season | Progressives set sights on Civilian Climate Corps Overnight Energy: Biden admin backs Trump approval of major Alaska drilling project | Senate Republicans pitch 8 billion for infrastructure | EPA to revise Trump rule limiting state authority to block pipelines Biden signs bill to help Alaska cruise industry MORE (R-Alaska) — both turn 87 in June. Pelosi is 79 while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios House rejects GOP effort to seat McCarthy's picks for Jan. 6 panel Senators scramble to save infrastructure deal MORE (R-Ky.) is 78. And several, including Rep. John LewisJohn LewisEthics panel taking no action after Joyce Beatty's arrest at protest Rep. Hank Johnson among demonstrators arrested at voting rights protest 10 books that take readers inside the lives of American leaders 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 LofgrenHouse erupts in anger over Jan. 6 and Trump's role Progressive fighting turns personal on internal call over antitrust bills Tech executives increased political donations amid lobbying push 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 BeraBiden walks fine line with probe into coronavirus origins House GOP campaign arm adds to target list Biological ticking time bombs: Lessons from COVID-19 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 TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general 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 JeffriesDemocrat unveils bill to allow only House members to serve as Speaker Progressive fighting turns personal on internal call over antitrust bills Democratic tensions simmer in House between left, center 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 HastingsNew Mexico Democrat Stansbury sworn into Haaland's old seat House Democrats unveil .9 billion bill to boost security after insurrection Carter sworn in as House member to replace Richmond, padding Democrats' majority 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 SwalwellTech executives increased political donations amid lobbying push Justice in legal knot in Mo Brooks, Trump case Mo Brooks's Jan. 6 defense raises questions about official immunity and DOJ strategy MORE (D-Calif.) has teamed with Rep. Rick CrawfordRick CrawfordGas shortages spread to more states Overnight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats hearing 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 JayapalHouse Democrats grow frustrated as they feel ignored by Senate Schumer feels pressure from all sides on spending strategy Liberal House Democrats urge Schumer to stick to infrastructure ultimatum 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.”