Mask rules spark confusion, tensions in Congress
New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is throwing Congress into flux and sparking tensions over a central question: to mask or not to mask?
Some lawmakers, like Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), are slowly adjusting.
Kaine was wearing a mask as he exited a committee hearing on Tuesday. But roughly an hour later, approaching the Senate basement, he was maskless. Passing by the same spot minutes later, he once again was masked.
“I’m in a transitional phase. … What I often do is if I’m with somebody who is wearing a mask, I’ll put one on too,” Kaine said, asked how he’s deciding when to wear a mask. “But I’m transitioning in my own head.”
Individual decisionmaking is complicated by different rules that have created parallel universes in Congress.
On one side of the Capitol, senators are largely shedding their masks. On the other, masks are still required on the House floor, unless speaking.
“Since I’ve been vaccinated, I’m following CDC guidance,” said a maskless Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), a member of GOP leadership. “I think we’ve all learned a little bit about how to stay a little healthier. … I just think a little common sense goes a long way.”
The two chambers have had their own cultures on how to handle the coronavirus pandemic.
All but a handful of senators have disclosed that they are fully vaccinated, making it easier for senators to inch back toward normalcy. But while all House Democrats have been vaccinated, a CNN survey found that only 95 of the 211 GOP House lawmakers have confirmed they are vaccinated.
The House is keeping its mask mandate for the floor, unless a member is speaking, and in committees. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also disclosed Democrats were extending proxy voting until early July.
Those decisions are sparking grumbling from House Republicans.
“It is time we follow the science, lead by example, and fully return to work to serve the American people. … Ineffective remote procedures have hindered congressional operations for too long and should not continue for the duration of the 117th Congress,” dozens of House Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), wrote in a letter to Pelosi.
Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) was spotted sitting in the House chamber without a mask. And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tweeted a photo of herself and three other lawmakers maskless on the House floor, arguing that masks were “oppressive.”
House Democratic leaders defended their decision to continue requiring masks on the chamber floor, saying they are simply following the guidelines put forward by the Capitol physician. Some jabbed back at GOP critics, arguing that if Republicans want a return to normalcy, they should encourage their reluctant colleagues to get inoculated.
“CDC guidelines are … very clear that workplaces can decide their own unique characteristics based on their conditions. And I think we would agree that the House floor is unique condition, especially with Republicans admitting that only 75 percent of their members are vaccinated,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) offered a similar assessment.
“If you look at the Office of the Attending Physician’s guidance, one of the cogent parts of that was that not every member has been [vaccinated],” he said.
“I’m glad that we’re back. We’re getting back to normal. The president’s pleased about that,” Hoyer added. “But what we want to make sure we don’t have is another, in effect, relapse, a surge.”
The dynamic is different just across the Capitol.
The attending physician sent a letter to Senate leadership, which was shared with Senate offices last week, saying that if individuals were fully vaccinated “you can resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic.”
“You can resume activities without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart,” the physician wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Hill.
That guidance, unlike a letter sent to House lawmakers, does not carve out an exemption for the Senate floor, where masks were encouraged but never required. Senators have largely stopped wearing masks, though a handful of GOP senators and a more significant portion of Democrats have been spotted sporting them around the Capitol and during votes.
Senators tipped their hand at the move toward normalcy, even as the Capitol remains closed to tours and the office buildings are still reserved for staff or planned-in-advance meetings.
“It’s nice to see some smiling faces again,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters who were largely not wearing masks at a weekly leadership press conference, adding that it was “proof and evidence that vaccines work.”
Whether to wear a mask for senators is largely ad hoc.
“If I’m going into a meeting that’s going to be a lot of us in one smaller area, I wear a mask,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), opening up his jacket pocket to show that he was carrying a mask with him. “If I’m going down the halls like this, I’m not wearing a mask.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), after being spotted wearing a mask immediately following the new CDC guidance, has been maskless this week.
Republicans have taken notice.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), asked about masks, said: “I think I took my cue from when Schumer came to the floor … without a mask.”
Mike Lillis contributed.