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 Pelosi (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.

Pelosi’s declaration came in response to Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (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 Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) — both turn 87 in June. Pelosi is 79 while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is 78. And several, including Rep. John Lewis (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.

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 Lofgren (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 Bera (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 Trump 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 Jeffries (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 Hastings (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 Swalwell (D-Calif.) has teamed with Rep. Rick Crawford (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.

They are not alone. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (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.”

Tags Alcee Hastings Ami Bera Coronavirus Dianne Feinstein Don Young Donald Trump Eric Swalwell Hakeem Jeffries Jerrold Nadler John Lewis Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal Rick Crawford Zoe Lofgren

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