House

Congress tiptoes back to normality post-pandemic

Virtual caucus meetings, mask requirements and long, socially distanced votes are officially a thing of the past as Congress - and the U.S. at large - is starting to turn the page on the COVID-19 pandemic. 

After returning from a three-week recess, House Democrats on Tuesday held their first in-person caucus meeting in more than a year.

Lawmakers also returned to Washington this week without having to abide by a universal mask requirement in the House chamber anymore. Masks are now sparse throughout the Capitol complex, among both parties, aside from a few staff and lawmakers who continue to wear them at their own discretion.

Members of Congress - a notoriously extroverted bunch - are clearly reveling in freely glad-handing and embracing on the floor after months of being told to keep each other at arm's length.

"We are certainly thankful that things are moving in the right direction," House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) said.

Yet despite the more relaxed atmosphere, Capitol Hill still isn't quite the same as it was before the pandemic. 

Proxy voting remains in place in the House for lawmakers to cast votes remotely until at least July 3, more than a year after it was enacted last May. Meanwhile, the Capitol still remains closed to tourists and the general public.

A senior Democratic aide said that lifting the remaining restrictions will depend on recommendations from the Capitol physician.

Other safety measures enacted after the Jan. 6 insurrection have no end date in sight, such as the metal detectors outside the House chamber and the fence still surrounding the Capitol building.  

The Speaker's Lobby, a hallway lining the south side of the House chamber that traditionally has been a gathering place for lawmakers, staff and journalists during floor votes, is also still closed off to the press since the start of the pandemic. And in the weeks since Jan. 6, metal detectors have been installed at each entrance for screening everyone entering the House chamber.

Across the Capitol, senators have been meeting in person for months and began shedding masks immediately following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) announcement last month that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can forgo facial coverings in most settings.

But it's always been a different dynamic in the upper chamber, where nearly all of its members voluntarily complied with mask-wearing when recommended and, according to a recent CNN survey, are now vaccinated.

By contrast, a sizable number of House Republicans resisted mask recommendations from the beginning. That prompted Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to mandate compliance in the chamber last summer. Violations eventually became punishable by fines starting at $500. 

Despite members of Congress having access to vaccines since December, roughly half of House Republicans recently declined to confirm to CNN if they are vaccinated. All Democrats in the House and Senate have confirmed they were vaccinated.

Relying on an honor system, however, raises questions. 

When a reporter asked at a press conference in the Capitol on Tuesday if the conservative Republicans on stage - all maskless - were vaccinated, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Rep. Bob Good (Va.) both declined to say if they were.

"No one should be shamed or forced into receiving the vaccination. No one should be shamed or forced into admitting whether or not they've received the vaccination, because it's private health information that no one should be asking," Good said.

"I appreciate you asking, but that is my right to keep my medical information private," echoed Greene.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who previously tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, confirmed he is not vaccinated and cited his own review of clinical trial data on the effectiveness of vaccines for people who recovered from the virus. The CDC still recommends vaccines for people who were previously infected with COVID-19.

"I'm not saying go out and get the virus instead of getting the vaccine. The vaccine can save lives, it's certain," Massie said. "I'm not going to get the vaccine until there's data that shows that it will improve upon the immunity that's been conferred to me as a result of a natural infection that I had."

The House mask mandate initially remained in place after the CDC announcement last month. But the Capitol physician issued new guidance late last week stating that fully vaccinated people don't need to wear masks on the House floor, although anyone who isn't vaccinated or is "vaccination indeterminate" should still wear one.

The Capitol physician justified the updated guidance in response to the "considerable rate of vaccination participation and diminishing daily evidence of disease transmission in our community."

House Democratic leaders subsequently announced that floor votes would no longer be conducted in staggered groups based on alphabetical order and would be limited to 20 minutes each, down from 30 minutes when they were in session last month. 

Their counterparts across the Capitol took another notable step toward pre-pandemic normalcy on Tuesday: They had lunch together in a room just off the Senate floor, in what had once been a regular routine but now felt novel again.

"It was good to be back in the Mansfield Room. It was good to be having lunches served again. And it's good to be with all of you," Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters afterward.

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