GOP, Democrats battle over masks in House, Senate

Members of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee ares seen with masks before a hearing regarding the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday, July 28, 2021.
Greg Nash

Masks are once again emerging as a flash point on Capitol Hill after Congress’s top doctor issued new guidance and cases ramp back up due to the delta variant of COVID-19.

More than half a dozen Republican lawmakers refused to comply with a reinstated requirement Wednesday that everyone wear masks on the House side of the Capitol, which followed new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance the day before urging everyone in high-risk areas to wear masks.

Several Republican firebrands, including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), Chip Roy (Texas), Lauren Boebert (Colo.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Andrew Clyde (Ga.), defiantly sat together near the center of the House floor sans masks, as nearly all the other lawmakers and staff around them complied with the rules.

A House floor staffer offered Boebert a mask, but she turned it down.

Republicans further forced roll call votes on motions to adjourn to slow down House floor proceedings in protest of the new mask rules.

“Consider resentment being magnified right here on the floor of the House of Representatives,” Roy declared.

Democrats, meanwhile, were infuriated by Republicans’ refusal to comply with health measures. After happily forgoing their masks in recent weeks, they were visibly angered by having to put them back on.

When asked about House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) criticism of the renewed mask mandate, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made no attempt to conceal her disdain.

“He’s such a moron,” Pelosi said.

McCarthy retorted that he’s questioning why the mask requirement is only being imposed on one side of the Capitol.

“Well, if she’s so brilliant, can she tell me where the science in the building changes between the House and the Senate?” McCarthy asked reporters.

McCarthy and a group of other House Republicans even met with the Capitol physician Wednesday to ask about the mask decision, but the meeting concluded without a resolution. 

Despite being housed in the same building, the House and Senate have developed vastly different responses to the pandemic over the past year.

All but four senators confirmed in a recent CNN survey that they are vaccinated. And senators mostly complied voluntarily with masks last year when they were recommended.

But in the House, Pelosi instituted a mask requirement last July after dozens of Republicans refused to wear masks — including one who tested positive for COVID-19. And when some Republicans still refused to wear masks in January, House Democrats imposed fines — $500 for the first offense and $2,500 thereafter — to enforce compliance.

While all House and Senate Democrats have said they are vaccinated, nearly half of the House GOP is a mystery. Some Republicans have refused to share their vaccination status, while others openly acknowledge that they have no plans to get vaccinated.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) didn’t hide his anger when he saw Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who he’d seen on CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time” two days ago explaining why he wouldn’t get vaccinated, board an elevator with other lawmakers making their way to House votes.

“It’s ridiculous that you’re unvaccinated, unmasked and you’re getting into an elevator with other people,” Huffman told Donalds, before opting for another elevator.

Donalds told The Hill afterward that he doesn’t intend to get the vaccine because he previously had COVID-19, but is not discouraging other people from getting vaccinated.

When told the CDC still recommends previously infected people get vaccinated, Donalds replied: “The CDC can recommend all they want. But that’s still my choice as a human being about what I’m going to put into my body. You’re talking to someone who doesn’t get flu shots. Why? Because I don’t want to put flu vaccines into my body.”

“In America, people need to mind their business,” Donalds added.

Senate Republicans have been actively trying to step up their efforts to combat vaccine hesitancy back home in their largely conservative states. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who was maskless on Wednesday, is going to run radio ads encouraging Kentuckians to get vaccinated. 

The backtrack comes as the delta variant is leading to an increase in cases across the country. Washington, D.C., according to the CDC, has a “substantial” amount of community spread. And a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing was postponed after a vaccinated staffer in Sen. Gary Peters’s (D-Mich.) Senate office tested positive. 

Republicans blasted the CDC’s guidance, warning it could discourage unvaccinated people from getting the vaccine. 

“The Biden administration apparently doesn’t trust the science, and they clearly don’t trust the American people to take personal responsibility for their own choices,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) sparred briefly during a committee hearing Wednesday over the CDC’s guidance, after Cruz blamed politics for the new mask rules. 

“I believe the CDC’s decision yesterday was politics. It wasn’t science,” Cruz said, at the hearing. 

Kaine fired back, “that’s frankly ridiculous.” 

“It’s ridiculous because in your comment you never said anything about the delta variant. You never said anything about the rising caseload in Texas and Virginia and everywhere,” Kaine said. 

Unlike in the House, the mask guidance on the Senate side of the Capitol is voluntary, leading to an ad-hoc decision that largely split along party lines on Wednesday. 

Republicans went maskless on Wednesday, arguing that most individuals around the chamber had been vaccinated. 

“Who here is not vaccinated?” a maskless Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) asked a largely masked group of reporters, who were staking out an infrastructure meeting. 

They also questioned if it sent the wrong message to wear a mask despite the complex’s high vaccination rate. 

A GOP aide, asked about Republicans going maskless, added: “I can’t think of a more vaccinated place than the Capitol.” 

Senate Democrats largely wore masks as they traveled back and forth from the Capitol to vote, with few exceptions: Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.) was spotted without a mask and Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) shifted between wearing and not wearing masks. 

But some senators also removed their masks while speaking with their colleagues on the floor. In the House, members can remove their masks while speaking during floor debate but must wear them at all other times.

Kaine, was spotted walking onto the floor only to remove it, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) was spotted maskless as she huddled with GOP senators. 

Democrats acknowledged that they, like many Americans, were trying to figure out the new guidance from the CDC and the Capitol physician. 

“Oh, it’s driving me crazy. I am trying my best to follow the rules,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who took off his mask to speak with reporters. “I just asked my staff and he said, ‘you only need to wear a mask when you’re in the presence of others in the building.’ So I want to do what is right.” 

Tags Bill Cassidy Chip Roy Coronavirus COVID-19 Dick Durbin Gary Peters Jared Huffman Joe Manchin Jon Tester Kevin McCarthy Kyrsten Sinema Lauren Boebert Marjorie Taylor Greene Masks Matt Gaetz Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Ted Cruz Thom Tillis Tim Kaine

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