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Capitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview

Capitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview
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Congress is experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases among lawmakers while doing exactly what Americans are being warned not to do for Thanksgiving this year: gathering together after traveling from all over the country. 

In the last week alone, seven members of Congress have tested positive for COVID-19, with three others quarantining after exposure. 

Three of those lawmakers with COVID-19 cast floor votes alongside their colleagues this week before learning they had the virus, underscoring the risks for everyone on Capitol Hill when cases in the U.S. are spiking rapidly.

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The outbreaks come as the Capitol physician’s office began offering expanded virus testing this week for House members and staff to comply with new guidance for travelers issued by the mayor of Washington, D.C. The testing, however, is not mandatory.

Lawmakers continue to at times struggle with masks and social distancing, with notoriously extroverted members having trouble resisting gathering in groups on or near the floor. And more than eight months into the pandemic, some are still not wearing masks correctly with their noses and mouths fully covered. 

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden coronavirus relief bill tests narrow Democratic majority Some Republicans say proxy voting gives advantage to Democrats Gun violence prevention groups optimistic background check legislation can pass this Congress MORE (D-Calif.) issued a stern reminder while presiding over the House floor on Wednesday that lawmakers must adhere to health guidelines. She repeated not just once, but twice for emphasis, that lawmakers and staff cannot enter the chamber without a mask under a requirement she issued in late July.

“It is essential for the health and safety of members, staff and U.S. Capitol Police to consistently practice social distancing and to ensure that a safe capacity be maintained in the chamber at all times,” Pelosi said.

“To reiterate, the chair views the failure to wear a mask as a serious breach of decorum.”

The COVID-19 cases roiling Capitol Hill came as the U.S. reached a grim milestone on Wednesday of 250,000 deaths from the pandemic at a time when the nation has recorded more than 100,000 new cases daily since the Nov. 3 elections.

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With more people gathering indoors as the fall weather grows colder, health experts are pleading with Americans to stay home and cancel their usual plans to travel and gather with family and friends for the holidays.

Some lawmakers tested positive for COVID-19 while still back home, while others learned of their diagnoses after arriving in Washington this week. 

Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyFBI director faces lawmaker frustration over Capitol breach Padilla has 'big Chuck Taylors to fill' in replacing Harris Judiciary Committee greenlights Garland's AG nomination MORE (R-Iowa) even delivered a Senate floor speech on Monday — a day before learning he had tested positive — urging people to adhere to social distancing measures and wear a mask. But like other members of both parties in both chambers, Grassley, 87, did not wear a mask while speaking before the cameras.

Reps. Ed PerlmutterEdwin (Ed) George PerlmutterColorado governor, spouse test positive for COVID-19 Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 Capitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview MORE (D-Colo.) and Dan NewhouseDaniel (Dan) Milton NewhouseSix ways to visualize a divided America Here are the GOP lawmakers censured by Republicans for impeaching Trump Upton becomes first member of Congress to vote to impeach two presidents MORE (R-Wash.) both voted on the House floor on Monday night and subsequently tested positive over the next two days. Grassley also voted on the Senate floor on Monday but missed his first votes since 1993 on Tuesday to quarantine. 

A spokesperson for Perlmutter, who was still asymptomatic upon learning of his results on Tuesday, said that he took a test after learning he was exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID-19. Newhouse said Wednesday that he “began to feel a little run down” the day before and had mild symptoms. 

Reps. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosHouse Republican campaign arm rolls out target list for midterms Lobbying world Five centrist Democrats oppose Pelosi for Speaker in tight vote MORE (D-Ill.), Tim WalbergTimothy (Tim) Lee WalbergGOP scrutiny intensifies on firing of NLRB top attorney READ: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (R-Mich.) and Doug LambornDouglas (Doug) LambornColorado presses Biden to reverse Trump Space Command move 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 Top Republican congressional aide resigns, rips GOP lawmakers who objected to Biden win MORE (R-Colo.) similarly all announced in the last few days that they had tested positive, following Rep. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungKey Democrat unveils plan to restore limited earmarks Haaland courts moderates during tense Senate confirmation hearing OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Haaland courts moderates during tense confirmation hearing | GOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change | White House urges passage of House public lands package MORE (R-Alaska) late last week. Bustos has cast votes by proxy this week, while Walberg, Lamborn and Young did not vote.

Young, who at 87 is the House’s oldest member, revealed that he was hospitalized and “had not felt this sick in a very long time.”

Rep.-elect Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa), who would have been in Washington for new member orientation, also tested positive last week. 

Still others exposed to the virus were in quarantine in the last few days: Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) as well as Reps. Mark PocanMark William PocanDemocrats don't trust GOP on 1/6 commission: 'These people are dangerous' Senate Democrats likely to face key test of unity on 2022 budget Democrats blast Facebook over anti-vaccine pages MORE (D-Wis.) and Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.).

The coronavirus-related absences in the Senate had practical impact beyond health concerns when Republicans lacked enough votes to advance Judy Shelton’s Federal Reserve Board nomination on Tuesday.

At least 20 House members and six senators have tested positive for COVID-19 since March, while two additional lawmakers had presumed cases that weren’t officially confirmed at the time. 

Eight months since the first lawmaker tested positive, Democrats and Republicans are still pursuing divergent approaches to managing COVID-19 in the Capitol.

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The Democratic-led House requires masks on the floor — a mandate prompted by then-asymptomatic and occasionally maskless Rep. Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertNIH director: Mask politicalization may have cost 'tens of thousands' of lives in US Democrats should make the 'Bee-Gees' the face of the Republican Party GOP lawmakers call for Pelosi to be fined over new screenings MORE’s (R-Texas) diagnosis — and allows lawmakers to cast votes by proxy if they can’t do so in person.

House Democrats conducted their leadership elections virtually on Wednesday using an app. House Republicans, who have resisted proposals like proxy voting, held theirs in-person at a hotel near the Capitol the day before.

In the Senate, masks are strongly recommended on the floor but not required.

That led to a tense argument on the floor between Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSenate confirms Rouse as Biden's top economist Democrats push Biden to include recurring payments in recovery package Padilla has 'big Chuck Taylors to fill' in replacing Harris MORE (D-Ohio), who objected to Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Finger-pointing on Capitol riot; GOP balks at Biden relief plan Sanders votes against Biden USDA nominee Vilsack Senate confirms Vilsack as Agriculture secretary MORE (R-Alaska) not wearing a mask while presiding over the chamber within six feet of floor staffers.

Pelosi initially planned to host a traditional dinner for incoming new members on Friday evening in the Capitol. But her office ultimately canceled the in-person plan and offered the meals to-go following a bipartisan social media backlash.

Dozens of House Republicans resisted wearing masks on the House floor for months until the requirement went into effect over the summer. Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) made clear the resentment lingers, tweeting last week that she spoke out during freshman orientation to declare that masks are “oppressive.”

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However, Greene did comply with the rules and wore a mask while attending House orientation. 

In the meantime, negotiations over an economic relief package remain at a standstill while the pandemic hits close to home for members of Congress. The two sides continue to be far apart on the size of a package and on the particulars of policies like unemployment insurance, funding for state and local governments and legal protections from COVID-19 related lawsuits. 

Asked Wednesday if Democrats were concerned about the coronavirus in the Capitol, House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse plans for immigration bills add uncertainty on Biden proposal This week: Senate takes up coronavirus relief after minimum wage setback House set for tight vote on COVID-19 relief package MORE (D-Md.) replied: “We all are.”