Senate steps into 'strange' new era

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Schumer's moment to transform transit and deepen democracy Pelosi, Schumer vow climate action: 'It is an imperative' 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 ThuneSenate votes to take up infrastructure deal Senators say they have deal on 'major issues' in infrastructure talks Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill MORE (R-S.D.) told reporters.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate votes to take up infrastructure deal Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on Eight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division 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 DurbinDick DurbinBiden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report GOP, Democrats battle over masks in House, Senate Democrats ramp up pressure for infrastructure deal amid time crunch 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 FeinsteinNearly 140 Democrats urge EPA to 'promptly' allow California to set its own vehicle pollution standards Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund Stripping opportunity from DC's children 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 McConnellMcConnell: 'It never occurred to me' convincing Americans to get vaccinated would be difficult The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal 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 ShelbyDemocrats ramp up pressure for infrastructure deal amid time crunch Overnight Defense: Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill | House panel looks to help military sexual assault survivors | US increases airstrikes to help Afghan forces fight Taliban On The Money: Schumer, Warren call on Biden to extend student loan pause | IMF estimates 6 percent global growth this year 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 RischThe 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal Democrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins 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 BraunCDC backtracks with new mask guidance GOP senators invite Yellen to brief them on debt ceiling expiration, inflation Rand Paul introducing measure to repeal public transportation mask mandates 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 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal Eight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division 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 PaulOnly two people cited by TSA for mask violations have agreed to pay fine Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill GOP Rep. Cawthorn says he wants to 'prosecute' Fauci 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 RoundsMike RoundsEight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor Schumer sets up key vote on bipartisan deal 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.”