GOP lawmakers comply with Pelosi’s mask mandate for House floor

Bonnie Cash

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) new mask requirement for the House floor had its intended effect Thursday: For once, there was effectively universal compliance.

The new requirement came after Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) tested positive for the coronavirus the day before, rattling lawmakers and staff across the Capitol complex. 

Gohmert was among the handful of House Republicans who had been resistant to wearing masks despite public health experts’ recommendations that facial coverings are an effective way to prevent spread of viral droplets.

Many of those lawmakers who didn’t consistently wear masks represent states that are currently coronavirus hot spots, including Texas, Arizona and Florida.

But on Thursday, every Republican on the House floor had a mask. Floor staffers also enforced compliance by telling members to pull up masks that were slipping under their noses.

One GOP lawmaker didn’t completely follow the rules, however.

At one point, Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) was taking a phone call — which no one is supposed to do while seated in the chamber — with his mask under his chin.

A young female staffer quickly approached Grothman, who initially ignored her. But once an older male staffer intervened, Grothman got up and left. He later returned to the House chamber with his mask on.

Pelosi warned while announcing the new policy from the House floor on Wednesday evening that any lawmaker or staffer without a mask would be barred from entering the chamber and risked removal by the sergeant-at-arms if they didn’t comply.

Some Democrats had called for requiring masks on the House floor weeks ago, long before Gohmert tested positive for COVID-19. But they said it’s better late than never.

“One would have hoped that this would have been done as a matter of common decency, but we obviously needed a rule,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). “I am very glad the Speaker did what she did. I’m sorry she had to do it.”

“It is a scandalous situation that it comes to members getting sick and potentially exposing everybody else,” Raskin added. “Everybody’s nervous.”

As recently as Tuesday, Gohmert participated in multiple committee hearings on Capitol Hill, at times without a mask. He has sometimes worn a facial covering in recent weeks, but also on some occasions mingled with fellow Republicans on the House floor without one.

The mask requirement, which officially took effect Thursday morning, applies to both the House floor and surrounding office buildings. A memo to lawmakers and staff from Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Capitol physician Brian Monahan said that anyone without a mask “will be asked to put on a face cover or leave the building.”

However, lawmakers don’t have to wear masks while they are recognized to speak on the House floor or in committees.

Pelosi previously began requiring masks in committee meetings in June. That directive came after another GOP lawmaker spotted around the Capitol without a mask — Rep. Tom Rice (S.C.) — tested positive for the coronavirus.

Democratic House committee chairmen have stopped short of forcing any members without masks to leave hearings. But some chairmen have instituted policies of refusing to grant speaking time to any member not wearing a mask. However, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who chairs the select committee on the coronavirus crisis, threatened last month to stop holding in-person hearings if GOP members continued to not wear masks.

House GOP leaders made a point of endorsing mask usage and reviewed safety precautions during a conference meeting with their members Thursday. Masks were required for the meeting itself.

“I think they all should wear masks,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters.

During the conference meeting, McCarthy also addressed complaints from staffers that numerous GOP lawmakers, including Gohmert, have been forcing their staff to work in-person during the pandemic and reportedly discouraged mask use in their offices.

McCarthy advised his members to check in with their staff because they shouldn’t assume that they are comfortable working in the office, according to a source in the room.

Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, also delivered a presentation in the meeting about the health and safety precautions that congressional offices should be following.

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

If Gohmert hadn’t been tested at the White House, it’s likely he would have spent yet another day on Capitol Hill carrying the virus without showing any symptoms and coming into contact with others.

Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) turned down an offer from the White House in May for a similar testing system for Congress because they wanted to direct resources toward front-line workers. But McCarthy, Davis and others argue that the decision should be reconsidered.

“There’s no other place that has this responsibility in this size that is being managed this way. I don’t understand,” McCarthy said.

Gohmert’s diagnosis quickly set off a chain reaction of fellow lawmakers, staff and journalists rushing to self-quarantine and get tested.

The number of lawmakers announcing that they were self-quarantining after exposure to Gohmert this week continued to grow on Thursday. At this point, at least four of Gohmert’s colleagues are self-isolating: Reps. Kay Granger (R-Texas), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Mike Johnson (R-La.) and Jody Hice (R-Ga.).

Granger sat next to Gohmert while on a flight from their home state on Sunday, while Johnson had dinner with Gohmert on Monday. Grijalva, meanwhile, chaired a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on Tuesday attended by Gohmert on the Park Police’s handling of protesters in Lafayette Square last month. 

In addition, Gohmert briefly came in contact with Attorney General William Barr on Tuesday outside the room where Barr gave testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee. The two were seen in a congressional hallway without masks on.

A Department of Justice spokesperson confirmed to The Hill on Wednesday that Barr would be tested for coronavirus the same day. Testing a subject the day after exposure to COVID-19 increases the likelihood of a false negative. 

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, was among the lawmakers seen on the floor in recent weeks without a mask. But on Thursday, Biggs wore a mask emblazoned with his state’s flag, maintaining that he has worn it off and on.

“I don’t think any of us has ever denied it’s real,” Biggs said of the coronavirus.

Juliegrace Brufke contributed.

Tags Bill Barr COVID-19 Donald Trump face masks Glenn Grothman Jamie Raskin Jody Hice Kay Granger Kevin McCarthy Louie Gohmert Mike Johnson Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Pandemic Rodney Davis Tom Rice William Barr
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