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Democrats start cracking down on masks for lawmakers

Democrats start cracking down on masks for lawmakers
© Greg Nash

House Democrats are weighing how to enforce the use of masks on Capitol Hill during the coronavirus pandemic as a number of GOP lawmakers continue to defy the public health guidance.

Multiple committee chairmen, empowered by guidance from the Capitol physician to require masks at committee meetings, are refusing to grant speaking time to any members not complying with the rule. 

And a number of Democrats believe that if ties and jackets are required on the House floor for the sake of decorum, then so should masks for the sake of public health. 

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Yet in-person proceedings in committees and on the House floor have been repeatedly marked by Republicans refusing to wear masks — and Democrats expressing their discomfort that those lawmakers aren’t doing their part to prevent the potential spread of the virus.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the chairman of the Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, warned on Monday he would not grant speaking time to any member not wearing a mask during future in-person hearings.

“My Republican colleagues’ refusal to wear masks is perplexing because you have asked repeatedly to hold in-person hearings, and you assured me that this could be done safely. In response, I told you that I would work in good faith to hold in-person hearings if we could do so safely and consistent with the Attending Physician’s guidelines,” Clyburn wrote in a letter to House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseMerrick Garland is right to prioritize domestic terrorism, but he'll need a bigger boat Why Congress must invoke the 14th Amendment now The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Ahead: One-shot vax, easing restrictions, fiscal help MORE (La.), the panel’s top Republican.

“Unfortunately, the Republican Members’ refusal to wear masks undermined the safety of everyone in the hearing room.”

Clyburn’s letter came after a select committee hearing on Friday, the first that he convened in person since the panel was established in April. For weeks, the committee held its hearings and briefings over videoconference, drawing complaints from GOP members of the panel who urged meetings in person.

But Clyburn and other Democrats on the panel grew frustrated when GOP members were seated on the dais without masks. Clyburn threatened to stop holding any more select committee meetings in person if members wouldn’t wear masks, citing the updated guidance — requested by Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike Budget Committee chair pledges to raise minimum wage: 'Hold me to it' Capitol review to recommend adding more fencing, 1,000 officers: report MORE (D-Calif.) — from the Capitol physician that requires masks “in a limited enclosed space, such as a committee hearing room, for greater than 15 minutes.”

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So far, Democrats are stopping short of forcibly removing lawmakers who aren’t wearing masks from proceedings.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) has adopted a similar policy as Clyburn of declining to recognize members to speak if they aren’t wearing masks. But Nadler didn’t announce his stance until several hours into a markup of police reform legislation a day after the mask requirement went into effect.

Since then, it has had mixed results. Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Divided House on full display Trump to reemerge on political scene at CPAC Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House MORE (Ohio), the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, drew ire from Democrats at another hearing last week for not wearing a mask the whole time. Jordan defended himself by noting that he put on a mask whenever he spoke directly to Nadler, who was a seat away.

“Every time I speak with the chairman, I put a mask on, I maintain proper social distance,” Jordan said in response to Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-PowellDebbie Mucarsel-PowellTrump, Florida complicate Biden approach to Cuba The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Coast-to-coast fears about post-holiday COVID-19 spread The Memo: Democrats see warning signs beyond 2020 MORE (D-Fla.) calling him “incredibly disrespectful.”

Scalise maintained that GOP members were sufficiently spaced apart in accordance with health guidelines, even though they weren’t wearing masks. But Scalise told The Hill on Monday that GOP members would comply in response to Clyburn’s letter.

“If that's the requirement, we're going to comply with the requirement. It's not a big deal,” Scalise said while wearing a black mask outside the House chamber.

Scalise’s compliance on Monday came as several top Republicans are starting to become more vocal about encouraging people to wear masks while confirmed nationwide coronavirus cases approach 2.6 million and continue to rise sharply in a number of Southern and Western states in recent days. 

While most lawmakers in both parties have been wearing masks in public, those who’ve continued to defy the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April are nearly all Republicans. Many of those Republicans are taking their cues from President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot Trump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged MORE, who has pointedly declined to wear a mask in public.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump at CPAC foments 2022 GOP primary wars Hawley gets boisterous ovation at CPAC for Electoral College objection   Why Congress must invoke the 14th Amendment now MORE (R-Ky.) implored Americans to wear masks in a speech on the floor on Monday.

“We need new routines, new rhythms and new strategies for this new middle ground in between. It's the task of each family, each small business, each employer and all levels of government to apply common sense and make this happen. To name just one example, we must have no stigma — none — about wearing masks when we leave our homes and near other people,” McConnell said.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderCongress addressed surprise medical bills, but the issue is not resolved Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, similarly told CNN on Sunday that it would “help” eliminate any political stigma if Trump encouraged people to wear masks.

“If wearing masks is important and all the health experts tell us that it is in containing the disease in 2020, it would help if from time to time the president would wear one to help us get rid of this political debate that says if you're for Trump, you don't wear a mask, if you're against Trump, you do,” Alexander said.

And on Friday, House GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyTrump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged Tomi Lahren says CPAC attendees clearly want Trump to run in 2024 Trump at CPAC foments 2022 GOP primary wars MORE (Wyo.) tweeted a photo of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, wearing a mask, using the hashtag “#realmenwearmasks.”

Yet even on Monday, some Republicans mingled with each other on the House floor without masks or had them pulled down under their chins, including Jordan and Reps. Tom McClintockThomas (Tom) Milller McClintockBipartisan resolution supports Iranian public amid Biden push to reenter nuclear deal An attack on America that's divided Congress — and a nation Coalition of 7 conservative House Republicans says they won't challenge election results MORE (Calif.), Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertNIH director: Mask politicalization may have cost 'tens of thousands' of lives in US Democrats should make the 'Bee-Gees' the face of the Republican Party GOP lawmakers call for Pelosi to be fined over new screenings MORE (Texas) and Brian MastBrian Jeffrey MastTapper battles GOP lawmakers over criticism of Afghan vet's Electoral College vote Republican war veteran gives Guard troops a tour of the Capitol LIVE COVERAGE: House votes to impeach Trump after Capitol insurrection MORE (Fla.). 

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse set for tight vote on COVID-19 relief package Key Democrat unveils plan to restore limited earmarks Overnight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission MORE (D-Md.) has acknowledged that Democratic leaders have discussed requiring masks on the floor, but said they prioritized instituting the mandate in committees because “the proximity is so much closer in committee rooms than it is on the floor.”

Lawmakers are required to adhere to a dress code — which is based on a combination of rules and precedent — that includes a coat and tie for men as well as a ban on hats. Some Democrats suggested that it might be necessary to institute a rule change to wear masks on the floor if there is still not universal voluntary compliance.

“If you start talking on a cellphone on the House floor or if you're a gentleman and you show up without a suit, the sergeant-at-arms will have someone come over and ask you to leave,” said Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDeJoy apologizes for mail delays while defending Postal Service changes Officer on Capitol riot: 'Is this America? They beat police officers with Blue Lives Matter flags' Considering impeachment's future MORE (D-Md.). “Masks are just absolute common sense. It costs us nothing. So I just don't see why we're not obligated to wear masks on the floor.”

When asked about the possibility of requiring masks on the floor, House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) argued it shouldn’t be necessary.

“I mean, I guess we could vote on it. But why do we even need it?” McGovern said. “People ought to behave like adults and listen to the medical science.”