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The ‘new normal’ takes shape on Capitol Hill

Congressional lawmakers hoping for a return to pre-coronavirus life on Capitol Hill might find themselves waiting awhile.

The pandemic has already upended daily routines and legislative calendars during the extended recess, forcing lawmakers to adapt to virtual hearings and cloistered campaigning. But now Congress’s leading medical authority is warning that the upheaval will extend to virtually all facets of life in the Capitol complex.

And those changes are likely to last years.

For congressional lawmakers and their staffs, that means life when they resume a more regular schedule in Washington will be, in many aspects, almost unrecognizable.

No longer packed into cubicles, many aides will be asked to work remotely, while desks will be spaced farther apart in congressional offices. Members will be advised to meet with constituents and lobbyists over video- or teleconferencing rather than in person for the next 12 months. Capitol elevators will be restricted to no more than two people at a time.

And in the numerous cafeterias around the Capitol complex, popular options like self-service salad bars and coffee machines will be no more. Instead, they will be staffed by cafeteria workers.

The Capitol physician, Brian Monahan, painted that bleak picture of life in the Capitol over the next several years during a conference call with House Democratic and Republican appropriators.

This will be the “new normal,” Monahan told lawmakers last week, according to a source on the call.

Asked by House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) when operations in the Capitol will get back to normal, Monahan replied: “Not for years.”

While the forecast was long-term, the effects were immediate.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) had planned to bring the chamber back into session on Monday, but he abruptly reversed course after receiving a similar briefing from Monahan about the dangers of summoning lawmakers back to Washington for days at a time.

Hoyer suggested the House would come back to quickly vote on the next coronavirus relief package whenever a deal is done. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Democrats are eyeing a May 11 return, when they will also vote to adopt voting by proxy, yet another measure that will transform the way business is conducted in the coronavirus era.

“We just have to get enough people here to do the remote voting,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday.

The Senate, however, is taking a different approach.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said senators will be back at work in the Capitol beginning Monday, even though Monahan told Senate chiefs of staff he doesn’t have the capacity to quickly test all 100 senators for COVID-19.

“If it’s essential for doctors, nurses, health care workers, truck drivers and grocery store workers and many other brave Americans to keep carefully manning their own duty stations during the pandemic,” McConnell said on Fox News, “then it is essential for senators to carefully man ours and support them.”

Monahan issued guidance to senators and staffers on Friday, recommending face masks in the Capitol and temperature checks at home.

Health care experts are warning that while efforts to curb the coronavirus seem to be working, eradicating the disease is still a long way off.

“There’s no epidemic in the history of the world that’s a parabola. Never works way,” Ron Klain, who headed the U.S. response to Ebola under former President Obama, told lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee on Friday. “It explodes and it’s very hard to extinguish. And so we shouldn’t expect to see this go away as quickly as it came. … We’re going to be facing this for months.”

Monahan is bracing Congress for that very scenario.

As the attending physician for Congress and the Supreme Court, Monahan said he would give lawmakers guidance on how many staffers could work in each congressional office, based on the square footage.

Some desks will need to be removed from offices to allow for social distancing, he said. Lawmakers could use a rotation system to determine which staffers come to the Capitol each day. Offices should also regularly check on the health of staffers, who are encouraged to take their temperature every day and answer a questionnaire to determine if they are healthy enough to go into work.

The only sure thing that will help and protect those working in the Capitol is social distancing, Monahan said.

Lawmakers will need to change “the configurations of our offices so people aren’t on top of each other,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who was on Monahan’s call with appropriators, told The Hill. “Think about how tight those offices are in Congress. Those are not at all COVID-19-friendly. Well, they are COVID-19-friendly — that’s the problem.”

“The attending physician really did lay out a lot of things that I don’t think were fully anticipated in order to go back,” Pocan added.

Monahan, a Navy rear admiral, said the medical advice he was providing lawmakers was based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health experts. Leadership could choose to follow the advice or do something different.

Enforcing Monahan’s recommendations, though, could be tough. He has urged lawmakers to wear masks in the Capitol, but many Republicans — including former House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Rep. John Ratcliffe (Texas), President Trump’s nominee for director of national intelligence — have flouted that advice.

Most Democrats indicated they plan to heed Monahan’s advice, especially those who have seen the devastating effects of the coronavirus up close.

“This is a dangerous moment in our region,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the leadership team who represents a district adjacent to D.C. that has seen 4,754 COVID-19 cases.

“Conventions and conferences all over America had been canceled during this period, and rightfully so. Think of the United States Congress as a massive convention involving thousands of people,” Raskin added. “We have to make sure we have extremely strict public health protocols.”

On the conference call last week with more than a dozen House appropriators, Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) asked Monahan what he would need to test more people in the Capitol complex, which on a normal day is teeming with thousands of people.

Monahan said he would need a highly regimented process to do testing and contact tracing. That includes more staff, more testing instruments and personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.

It’s those very things, however, that the country is struggling to acquire, prompting public health experts to warn of difficult days to come.

“Here in the greatest country in the history of the world,” said Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.).

“We’re struggling to get glorified Q-tips.” 

Cristina Marcos contributed.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Jamie Raskin Jim Jordan John Ratcliffe Mark Pocan Max Rose Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Nita Lowey Pandemic Social distancing Steny Hoyer Will Hurd
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