SPONSORED:

Senate steps into 'strange' new era

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate Democrats looking to speed through Senate impeachment trial MORE (D-N.Y.) offered a prediction minutes after the chamber reconvened for the first time in weeks on Monday.

“This will be one of the strangest sessions of the United States Senate in modern history,” he said. 

As senators settle back into the Capitol this week, it’s clear that the spread of the coronavirus has fundamentally reshaped day-to-day life in Washington, with one lawmaker describing their new normal as “weird.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

The normal clubby atmosphere of the Senate floor has all but disappeared.

During a vote on Monday night, the only one the chamber has held so far, senators for the most part cast their votes and left, even though they hadn’t been together in more than a month. Thirteen missed it altogether.

It was quite a reversal from March 25, the last time most of the Senate took a vote in person. Though the coronavirus had already led much of the nation to lock down, senators lingered in large groups to talk one last time, violating social distancing recommendations.

Lawmakers are acknowledging that there will be an adjustment period as they try to balance doing their jobs in what is a social institution with the new safety precautions meant to prevent the coronavirus’s spread.

“It’s a different experience for sure, but hopefully we’ll get used to it,” Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneImpeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP For platform regulation Congress should use a European cheat sheet Streamlining the process of prior authorization for medical and surgical procedures MORE (R-S.D.) told reporters.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCruz, Cornyn to attend Biden inauguration McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Rick Scott will 'likely' join challenge to election results MORE (R-Texas) joked as he put on a mask to talk to reporters off the Senate floor that he wasn’t very “adept” yet at doing so but that he supported the Senate returning.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I’ve been around under house arrest in my own home for six weeks, so I’m just glad to be out,” he said.

The decision to return to the Capitol comes even as Washington, D.C., remains under a stay-at-home order until at least May 15. There have been at least 5,322 cases of coronavirus in D.C. with 254 deaths, according to New York Times data, with the number of new cases per day not yet leveling off. 

The risk is particularly acute in the Senate, where the average age is approximately 62 and approximately half of the chamber is 65 or older. Public health experts have warned that older individuals, in particular, are at risk for severe cases of the coronavirus. 

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinSunday shows preview: Washington prepares for an inauguration and impeachment; coronavirus surges across the US Democrats looking to speed through Senate impeachment trial Schumer says Democrats will probe extremist groups after Capitol attack MORE (D-Ill.), who is 75, questioned if the Senate should stay in town until Memorial Day, even as Senate Republicans have signaled they plan to stick to their normal May schedule. 

“This being here today, and your being here today, is a risk to both of us and our families,” Durbin said when a reporter for The Hill asked if the body should stay in session until Memorial Day. “It’s just a fact. We’re wearing these masks and doing everything, standing apart, but it is a risky decision.” 

Democrats have publicly fumed over the decision to bring the Senate back even though lawmakers are weeks, at least, away from having a deal on a fifth coronavirus relief package. 

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinBottom line Trump vetoes bipartisan driftnet fishing bill Dumping Abraham Lincoln? A word of advice to the 'cancel culture' MORE (D-Calif.), who at 86 is the oldest senator, told reporters that it was “sobering” to be back in the Capitol.

Feinstein, who had publicly called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBoebert communications director resigns amid Capitol riot: report Urgency mounts for new voting rights bill Senate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster MORE (R-Ky.) to cancel this week’s session over safety concerns, took off her mask while talking to reporters, saying she couldn’t breathe while wearing it. 

“I don’t think it’s smart” to bring lawmakers back, Feinstein said. “It just happens that this week isn’t really terribly essential.” 

It’s not just Democrats who are signaling some anxiety about being back in the Capitol. 

“I think we’re all anxious. We realized the danger to us,” Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Overnight Defense: Trump impeached for second time | National Guard at Capitol now armed, swelling to 20K troops for inauguration | Alabama chosen for Space Command home Space Command to be located in Alabama MORE (R-Ala.), who turns 86 on Wednesday, told reporters while wearing an Alabama-themed mask.

Asked on Tuesday if it was safe in the Capitol, Sen. Jim RischJim Elroy RischOvernight Defense: US sanctions NATO ally Turkey over Russian defense system | Veterans groups, top Democrats call for Wilkie's resignation | Gingrich, other Trump loyalists named to Pentagon board Will Biden choose a values-based or transactional foreign policy? GOP senator congratulates Biden, says Trump should accept results MORE (R-Idaho) told reporters: “No.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

The attending physician provided a six-page memo to senators and their staff outlining ways to limit the spread of the coronavirus while lawmakers are back in the Capitol, including encouraging remote working, reconfiguring offices and staggering lunch times. 

Republicans are holding caucus lunches three times a week, but they are spacing out to try to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunTop Republican congressional aide resigns, rips GOP lawmakers who objected to Biden win Congress affirms Biden win after rioters terrorize Capitol Congress rejects challenge to Arizona's presidential vote MORE (R-Ind.) said that during Tuesday’s closed-door caucus lunch there were three senators at a table. 

Democrats are holding all their meetings by conference call, something Durbin said he hoped could change soon. 

“I am so tired of telephone conference calls … and I kind of miss my friends. I went out to get a cup of coffee in my neighborhood this morning and I saw Tina Smith, 'Tina' waving from afar. That’s as close as it gets,” he said of the Minnesota Democrat.
 
To help with social distancing, dots have also been placed on the floor in common areas like office building entrances and the Capitol basement to indicate where people should stand. In addition to the floor markers, plexiglass barriers have been installed in the Senate carryout, one of the few dining options that remain open in the Capitol complex, as well as some of the press galleries. Boxes of masks have also popped up around the Capitol. 

Almost every senator who has been in the Capitol has been wearing a mask, a move that was recommended, but not required, by the Capitol physician. 

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntUS Chamber of Commerce to stop supporting some lawmakers following the Capitol riots Senate to be briefed on inauguration security after Capitol attack This week: Democrats barrel toward Trump impeachment after Capitol attack MORE (R-Mo.) did not wear one on Monday but had one when he returned to a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday morning. Asked about the reversal, he told reporters: “Guess I missed the memo.” 

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Legislatures boost security after insurrection, FBI warnings Former Missouri senator says backing Hawley was 'worst mistake of my life' MORE (R-Ky.), the only senator known to have tested positive, is among a few senators who have gone maskless around the Capitol. He told reporters that he considered himself to be one of the safest people to be in close contact with because of his previous infection. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“I have immunity. I’ve already had the virus, so I can’t get it again and I can’t give it to anybody,” he told reporters. 

Pressed about reports that people who have gotten it could get it again, Paul said, “That’s not true. There’s no evidence of any — I can’t get it again, nor can I transmit it. So of all the people you’ll meet here, I’m about the only safe person in Washington.”

Multiple senators said wearing a mask, and seeing their colleagues and staff wearing them, is one of the oddest parts about being in the Capitol. When lawmakers left in late March, no senator was wearing a mask, even after Paul tested positive.

“During this time to actually see people, everybody, wearing masks,” Sen. Mike RoundsMike RoundsMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time GOP senators blame Trump after mob overruns Capitol Senate poised to override Trump's defense bill veto MORE (R-S.D.) said, asked what has stood out to him. “In fact, the first time I walked into a couple I didn’t know who they were.”