Pelosi to require masks on House floor

Bonnie Cash

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced Wednesday that masks will be mandatory on the House floor, after a GOP lawmaker who has at times flouted the health recommendation tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the day. 

“Members and staff will be required to wear masks at all times in the hall of the House except that members may remove their masks temporarily when recognized,” Pelosi said from the House floor. 

Pelosi warned that lawmakers and staff without masks will not be permitted to enter the House chamber and risk removal by the Sergeant at Arms if they don’t comply. 

Pelosi said that the mask requirement is “a sign of respect for the health, safety and well-being of others present in the chamber and surrounding areas.” 

The mask requirement on the House floor comes hours after Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) tested positive for COVID-19. Gohmert has been among the handful of GOP lawmakers spotted on the House floor in recent weeks without a mask while mingling with colleagues.

As recently as Tuesday, the Texas Republican did not wear a mask while outside a House Judiciary Committee hearing room. He also initially did not have a mask on while inside the hearing room.

Public health experts, backed by multiple studies, say that masks are an effective way to prevent spread of viral droplets.

Yet Gohmert, during an interview with a local Texas television station, said that he “can’t help but wonder if my keeping a mask on and keeping it in place, that if I might have put some germs or some of the virus onto the mask and breathed it in.”

Pelosi already moved last month to require the use of masks in committee hearings. That came shortly after another GOP lawmaker, Rep. Tom Rice (S.C.) – who was spotted without a mask on the House floor – tested positive for the coronavirus.

Some committee leaders, including House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis James Clyburn (D-S.C.), have since made it a policy to not grant speaking time to any lawmaker not wearing a mask.

Yet some GOP lawmakers have continued to resist wearing masks during committee business and on the House floor, including those from current hotspots like Texas, Arizona and Florida. 

During a hearing on Tuesday, Nadler singled out GOP Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio), Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and Mike Johnson (La.) for not wearing masks.

Gohmert’s case set off a domino effect of lawmakers, the attorney general and journalists alike moving swiftly on Wednesday to get tested after being around him, underscoring the additional challenges facing Congress as it tries to go about its usual business during a pandemic.

The Texas Republican had attended hearings held by the House Judiciary and Natural Resources committees the previous day, coming into contact with other lawmakers, staff and Attorney General William Barr.

A spokesperson for Barr said that he will be tested following the exposure to Gohmert.

At least two members of the Capitol press corps similarly moved to get tested on Wednesday after encounters with Gohmert and are self-isolating.

And at least two lawmakers said they will self-quarantine: Rep. Kay Granger (Texas), the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, who sat next to Gohmert on a plane from their home state on Sunday, and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

“In the meantime, my work schedule and the lives of my employees are disrupted. This stems from a selfish act by Mr. Gohmert, who is just one member of Congress,” Grijalva said in a statement.

Gohmert tested positive for COVID-19 during a screening at the White House on Wednesday morning ahead of a planned trip with President Trump to Texas.

But were it not for the rapid coronavirus testing system available at the White House for everyone who comes into contact with the president, Gohmert could have continued another day roaming about Capitol Hill while unknowingly exposing others to the virus.

Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) turned down an offer from the White House in May for Congress to have the same rapid testing system, saying that they wanted to direct resources toward front-line workers. But some lawmakers said Wednesday that it may be time to revisit that decision.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that it may be necessary to require testing among lawmakers, who routinely travel back and forth from their districts all over the country.

“We have discussed in the past, and this may be – no, this is, I think – a moment where we ought to discuss it again. I’m going to be discussing it with the Speaker and with the minority leader as to what we think is the policy that will be most effective,” Hoyer said.

Unlike at the White House, where the president, top officials, staff and reporters regularly get tested, people entering the Capitol complex aren’t required to be tested or even undergo temperature checks.

“I think particularly for members of Congress who are going back and forth, they represent sort of the perfect Petri dish for how you spread a disease,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

Blunt, the chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, added: “I’ve been advocating for a couple of months that we test everybody and start with people who are traveling.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, have also expressed support for a rapid testing system on Capitol Hill.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said that the offer still stands.

“So hopefully now that we’ve got our testing capabilities a lot more robust than they’ve ever been, they’ll take us up on that,” Meadows said.

Gohmert’s positive test also fueled anxiety among lawmakers and staff because it came at a time when both chambers of Congress have been in session continuously for the last two weeks.

The timing of the next recess is unclear while congressional leaders and the Trump administration struggle to reach consensus on a coronavirus aid package.

By contrast, during the early days of the pandemic in the spring, the House largely only came into session for a few days at a time to limit the need for lawmakers to travel and spend time in the Capitol complex.

Before Gohmert’s positive test on Wednesday, the two most recent lawmakers to contract COVID-19 since June – GOP Reps. Morgan Griffith (Va.) and Tom Rice (S.C.) – announced their diagnoses while the House was out of session.

House Democrats have implemented some safety precautions in recent months, including spacing out floor votes so that only small groups of lawmakers come to cast votes at a time. They also changed House rules in May to allow lawmakers to vote by proxy – in which they allow a colleague physically present in the chamber to vote on their behalf – if they can’t travel.

Until Wednesday, House Republicans declined to partake in proxy voting as part of their push to continue holding proceedings in person and to echo Trump’s calls to reopen the economy. 

But Rep. Francis Rooney (Fla.), who is retiring, on Wednesday became the first Republican to vote by proxy and authorized a Democrat, Rep. Don Beyer (Va.), to cast his vote by proxy.

“Votes have been occurring remotely for several months now, with no adverse consequences. Given the recent COVID-19 positive test results for my colleagues, including Louie Gohmert today, this method of voting is the prudent and rational course of action,” Rooney tweeted.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump face coverings face masks Francis Rooney Jerrold Nadler Jim Jordan Kay Granger Kevin McCarthy Louie Gohmert Mark Meadows Mike Johnson Mitch McConnell Morgan Griffith Nancy Pelosi Rodney Davis Roy Blunt Steny Hoyer Tom Rice William Barr
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