Senate steps into 'strange' new era

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday Top intelligence officials to brief Gang of Eight on Thursday Over 1700 veterans ask Senate to pass statehood bill 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.” 

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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 ThuneMcConnell: Trump shouldn't veto defense bill over renaming Confederate bases Senate Republicans defend Trump's response on Russian bounties GOP skeptical of polling on Trump MORE (R-S.D.) told reporters.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday New legislation required to secure US semiconductor leadership GOP skeptical of polling on Trump 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.

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“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 DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinHillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats Overnight Defense: Democrats blast Trump handling of Russian bounty intel | Pentagon leaders set for House hearing July 9 | Trump moves forward with plan for Germany drawdown Democrats, voting rights groups pressure Senate to approve mail-in voting resources 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 Filibuster reform gains steam with Democrats Senate panel votes 21-1 to back Justice IG measure over Graham objections 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 McConnellFormer HUD Secretary: Congress 'should invest 0B in direct rental assistance' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House approves .5T green infrastructure plan | Rubio looks to defense bill to block offshore drilling, but some fear it creates a loophole | DC-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated House approves .5T green infrastructure plan 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 ShelbyFights over police reform, COVID-19 delay Senate appropriations markups Trump's push for major infrastructure bill faces GOP opposition Watchdogs express concern to lawmakers about ability to oversee coronavirus relief funds 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 RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischRepublicans start bracing for shutdown fight in run-up to election GOP's Obama-era probes fuel Senate angst Democrat Paulette Jordan to face incumbent Jim Risch in Idaho Senate race MORE (R-Idaho) told reporters: “No.” 

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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 BraunGridlock mires chances of police reform deal Pelosi says GOP 'trying to get away with murder' on police reform bill GOP senator introducing bill to scale back qualified immunity for police 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 BluntThe Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks Hillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats Senate GOP starting to draft next coronavirus proposal 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 PaulSenate rejects Paul proposal on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic proposal to extend 0 unemployment checks Rand Paul urges Fauci to provide 'more optimism' on coronavirus 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. 

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“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 RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsRepublican rift opens up over qualified immunity for police GOP divided in fight over renaming bases Cotton emerges as key figure in base renaming fight 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.”