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 DurbinDemocrats ramp up warnings on Russian election meddling The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Negotiators signal relief bill stuck, not dead White House officials, Democrats spar over legality, substance of executive orders 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-BalartWatchdog calls for probe into Gohmert 'disregarding public health guidance' on COVID-19 Massie plans to donate plasma after testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies House Republicans introduce legislation to give states 0 million for elections 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 McConnellOn The Money: Senate leaves until September without coronavirus relief agreement | Weekly jobless claims fall below 1 million for first time since March | Trump says no Post Office funding means Democrats 'can't have universal mail-in voting' Overnight Health Care: Senate leaves until September without coronavirus relief deal | US records deadliest day of summer | Georgia governor drops lawsuit over Atlanta's mask mandate Senate leaves until September without coronavirus relief deal 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 SchumerChuck SchumerIn the next relief package Congress must fund universal COVID testing Ocasio-Cortez's 2nd grade teacher tells her 'you've got this' ahead of DNC speech New poll shows Markey with wide lead over Kennedy in Massachusetts 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 HoyerLawmakers of color urge Democratic leadership to protect underserved communities in coronavirus talks The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump to Democratic negotiators: 'They know my phone number' House will be out of session for additional week in September 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 RomneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Harris launch Trump offensive in first joint appearance Ron Johnson signals some GOP senators concerned about his Obama-era probes Davis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump 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 PortmanRon Johnson signals some GOP senators concerned about his Obama-era probes Davis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump Not a pretty picture: Money laundering and America's art market 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 PelosiSusan Collins asks postmaster general to address delays of 'critically needed mail' Trump says he'd sign bill funding USPS but won't seek changes to help mail voting On The Money: Senate leaves until September without coronavirus relief agreement | Weekly jobless claims fall below 1 million for first time since March | Trump says no Post Office funding means Democrats 'can't have universal mail-in voting' 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 LofgrenDemocrats accuse Barr of helping Trump distract from coronavirus State and local officials beg Congress to send more election funds ahead of November FEC commissioner resigns, leaving agency without a quorum again 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 BluntSenate leaves until September without coronavirus relief deal COVID-19 relief talks look dead until September  Davis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump 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 MurphyDemocrats ramp up warnings on Russian election meddling Democrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee Democrats try to force Trump to boost medical supplies production 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.