Coronavirus anxiety spreads across Capitol Hill

Coronavirus anxiety spreads across Capitol Hill
© Greg Nash

Fallout from the coronavirus is burning its way through the Capitol amid a growing risk of a spread among lawmakers and staff.

Members of Congress and their office staff had viewed it as all but inevitable that a lawmaker would eventually contract the virus, given the frequent travel, events and glad-handing that defines congressional life.

But the announcement by two House members Wednesday that they tested positive sparked a new wave of anxiety among their colleagues, many of whom had been in close quarters with them just last week, and a sense that more cases are on the horizon.

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Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSenator Tom Coburn's government oversight legacy Democratic lawmakers demand government stop deporting unaccompanied children Legal immigrants at risk of losing status during coronavirus pandemic MORE (D-Ill.) noted that the two House members started showing symptoms shortly after they voted Saturday with hundreds of other lawmakers on the second coronavirus package.

“Gathering in groups as we’ve done historically poses a health risk not just to us, as members, and our families but to the staff and their families," Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said. "We ought to be more thoughtful.”

Wednesday's announcements from the two infected lawmakers — Reps. Mario Diaz-BalartMario Rafael Diaz-BalartBottom Line House chairwoman diagnosed with 'presumed' coronavirus infection Capitol officials extend suspension of tourist access until May MORE (R-Fla.) and Ben McAdams (D-Utah) — sparked a near-immediate domino effect as lawmaker after lawmaker said they would self-quarantine. As of Friday morning, several members had taken such steps, including a sizable portion of the House Republican whip team.

The Capitol’s attending physician, meanwhile, circulated a flow chart to staffers to determine their risk of being exposed to and infected with the virus. The chart included steps for what individuals should do based on whether they are symptomatic or asymptomatic.

“It reflects the pace of the COVID-19 disease throughout the United States and its presence here in Washington, D.C. that it has touched the community of the U.S. Capitol,” the attending physician added in a notice to congressional offices.

There are now more than 10,000 coronavirus cases in the United States and at least 150 deaths. In Washington, the shift in day-to-day life has come dramatically this week as bars, restaurants and other stores in the nation's capital drastically scaled back or temporarily shuttered.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocrats press Trump, GOP for funding for mail-in ballots Top GOP lawmakers push back on need for special oversight committee for coronavirus aid Stocks move little after record-breaking unemployment claims MORE (R-Ky.) tipped his hand to the escalating situation, noting that the “crisis is moving fast.”

“I think every American shares the sense that the last several days have felt more like several months,” he added.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats press Trump, GOP for funding for mail-in ballots Schumer doubles down in call for Trump to name coronavirus supply czar Trump lashes out at Schumer over call for supply czar MORE (D-N.Y.) compared the pandemic to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, noting that “so many were prepared to write New York City off the map ... but we did come back.”

The threat on Capitol Hill is particularly acute because lawmakers spend so much time in close quarters and many are above 60, making them more susceptible to severe cases of COVID-19.

Some lawmakers pointed out it's worth keeping coronavirus in perspective.

"It's not a death sentence if you get it,” said Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.).

But leaders in both chambers are under growing pressure to take action to try to prevent the coronavirus from spreading to other members.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerProcedural politics: What just happened with the coronavirus bill? DC argues it is shortchanged by coronavirus relief bill Lysol, disinfecting wipes and face masks mark coronavirus vote in House MORE (D-Md.) said in a “Dear Colleague” letter that he would adjust the House schedule to keep lawmakers out of Washington until they are ready to vote on a third, mammoth coronavirus package.

“I share the concerns of many Members regarding the number of Members on the House Floor at any one time. I therefore expect that the House will adjust our voting procedures in order to follow the CDC’s recommendations. No decisions have been made on exactly what these changes will be, but we will be discussing all options,” he added.

The Senate, which remains in session, is stepping up its efforts to implement social distancing, with mixed results.

Senate Republicans have moved their caucus lunches to a larger room to try to provide members with more room. Lawmakers, however, are still bunched together at circular tables and could be seen chatting in pairs or groups on their way out.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyPoll: More Republican voters think party is more united than Democratic voters Granting cash payments is a conservative principle 7 things to know about the coronavirus stimulus package MORE (R-Utah) posted a video from the lunch on Thursday touting that he and his colleagues were “practicing social distancing!” But in the background, three senators could be seen standing and sitting in close proximity to one another.

McConnell is also lengthening votes and encouraging members not to linger on the floor, which is usually a hub for lobbying and gossiping with fellow senators.

But when floor votes were held on Wednesday, they didn't seem to go as planned: Several members were seen with at least one desk between them, but some Republicans were huddled together while they chatted on the floor. 

“We want to avoid congregating here in the well. I would encourage our colleagues to come and vote and depart the chamber so we don’t have gaggles of conversations here on the floor,” McConnell said as he announced the new approach.

Concerns about the coronavirus have sparked a wave of calls for remote voting. Durbin and Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP senator to donate 2 months of salary in coronavirus fight Senators pen op-ed calling for remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic Some Democrats growing antsy as Senate talks drag on MORE (R-Ohio) are proposing a rules change to allow for the Senate to vote remotely during a national crisis.

In the House, a group of Democrats sent a letter to leadership asking for a change in the rules to allow for remote voting so that no one would be impeded by quarantines or potential travel restrictions.

“Adopting rules today for the House to allow remote voting, as necessary, will allow every member to continue to vote and represent the concerns of their constituents as we address this crisis,” they wrote.

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Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiNJ governor calls for assessment of coronavirus response after crisis abates Overnight Health Care: Global coronavirus cases top 1M | Cities across country in danger of becoming new hotspots | Trump to recommend certain Americans wear masks | Record 6.6M file jobless claims Hillicon Valley: Zoom draws new scrutiny amid virus fallout | Dems step up push for mail-in voting | Google to lift ban on political ads referencing coronavirus MORE (D-Calif.) said during a conference call that she has instructed House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) to present a report on the chamber’s rules regarding voting for members to review and is accepting suggestions from fellow Democrats. House Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenHillicon Valley: FCC chief proposes 0M telehealth program | Twitter takes down posts promoting anti-malaria drugs for coronavirus| Whole Foods workers plan Tuesday strike Trump says election proposals in coronavirus stimulus bill would hurt Republican chances Democratic lawmakers demand government stop deporting unaccompanied children MORE (D-Calif.) is also preparing a memo on resources for teleconferencing.

But Senate GOP leaders have shot down talk of remote voting, for now.

“We’ll not be doing that. There are a number of different ways to avoid getting too many people together,” McConnell told reporters.

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntHillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Lawmakers already planning more coronavirus stimulus after T package Senate Democrats vow to keep pushing for more funds for mail-in voting MORE (R-Mo.) added that while he was open to conversations with other members, he does not support remote voting.

“I’m open to talking about it, but I’m unlikely to be open to doing it,” Blunt said. 

Senate Democrats, however, have been holding their caucus meetings via conference call.

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“It’s hard. I think everybody's adjusting. Teleworking is hard when you have weeks to prepare for it,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocratic senators call on domestic airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Coronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner MORE (D-Conn.). “I’m spending more time on the phone with my colleagues since I’ve had this job.”

But, he noted, Senate Democrats have largely learned the first rule of the conference call: Mute your lines.

“Surprisingly, we’ve done a better job of that than I would have expected,” Murphy said. “I think everybody has gotten the brief on how to mute your life.”

Updated at 10:50 a.m.