WASHINGTON – After the House passed a $2 trillion emergency aid package to help Americans reeling from the coronavirus last week, one of their colleagues back home announced he had tested positive for the potentially deadly disease.
A few hours later, another disclosed he, too, had contracted COVID-19. Three days later, there was a third.
The growing group of lawmakers who have contracted the virus – now at six – has underscored the dangerous predicament that Congress has found itself in as lawmakers aim to keep themselves healthy while working on vital legislation to keep families and businesses afloat across the country.
As Congress begins to discuss a possible fourth piece of legislation to tackle the impacts of the coronavirus, here is what lawmakers face and how they’re attempting to maneuver around the virus.
Coronavirus live updates:CDC reviewing face mask policy; Prince Charles feeling better; US death toll tops 4,000
Six members of Congress with coronavirus diagnosis
As of Thursday, at least six members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus: one U.S. Senator and five members of the House of Representatives.
- Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
- Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C.
- Rep. Mike Kelly, D-Pa.
- Rep. Nydia Valazquez, D-N.Y.
- Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah
- Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.
More than two dozen have gone into self-quarantine after potentially interacting with someone who tested positive. Others have also done so after being in close contact with the lawmakers who tested positive. At least two congressional staff members have tested positive as well.
Valazquez, Kelly and Cunningham announced their diagnoses after Friday’s historic vote on the $2 trillion coronavirus bill. Kelly and Cunningham did not travel to Washington for the vote. Valazquez, who said she started to notice symptoms the Sunday after, did go to D.C. where she spoke on the House floor and attended a signing ceremony with House leadership, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In a Tuesday interview with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Pelosi said she “kept my distance from all of the members” at the signing ceremony,
McAdams had been admitted to the hospital after experiencing severe shortness of breath.
He told the Salt Lake Tribune the experience “felt awful like I was hit by a truck.”
Aging Congress increases risks
Congress has been put in an even more dangerous predicament because many members are in the age group at high risk of getting severely ill or dying from the coronavirus: those 65 years and older.
About half of the 100-member Senate is 65 or older and, in the House, 146 of its members are above that age.
The average age of a member of the House is 58, and 63 in the Senate.
The older pack of lawmakers also includes its leaders, who have played a key role in quickly passing coronavirus legislation. Pelosi turned 80 this week and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is 78.
Convening Congress also stands in opposition to the Trump administration’s social distancing guidelines that recommend against coming together in gatherings of more than 10 people. There are normally 535 total members of the House and Senate, and many more staff members coming in and out of the Capitol.
Anxious lawmakers push for remote voting
The spike in coronavirus cases across the U.S. also led to the rise in demands that Congress be allowed to vote remotely.
“It’s time for us to have this conversation about how to protect members and their families, staff and their families, in the way that we vote on the floor of the Senate when we’re facing a public health crisis such as the one that we have at this moment,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of the leading voices demanding that lawmakers be allowed to vote remotely.
Pelosi commissioned House Rules Committee Chairman Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., to research the possibility. McGovern sent out a report outlining the issues with voting remotely but offered the option of voting by proxy, something that would require a change in the House’s rules and a vote of approval.
But both Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have rejected the idea of voting remotely. Pelosi on a Tuesday conference call with reporters knocked down the idea again, explaining that it’s something that could be considered “way down the road” if warranted.
“Let’s not waste too much time on something that’s not going to happen,” she said.
When will Congress come back? TBD
The House and Senate are on a recess without a definitive end date. Both chambers had a prescheduled break that would end April 20 but the coronavirus has left that up in the air.
There is also still a chance that Congress could be called back earlier if another coronavirus relief package is needed, but congressional leaders have indicated they believe the end of April would likely be the next time legislation is needed.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer penned a letter to fellow Democrats on Tuesday indicating that everything is in flux due to the virus.
“We will listen to the advice from medical experts as to when we can proceed with the business of Congress in Washington, so it is not possible to give a definitive return date,” he wrote.
Many lawmakers had trouble returning to Washington last week because of scarce flight availability, a hurdle that could worsen over time should the virus persist.
Maintaining a safe (and clean) Capitol
In mid-March, after the first two members of Congress were diagnosed with the coronavirus, Attending Physician of the United States Congress Brian P. Monahan issued new guidance for members of Congress, and said offices and locations at risk were cleaned using “CDC approved cleaning methods to ensure there is no residual risk to others.”
And when members of Congress came back to vote on the stimulus bill last week, all members of the House had to use hand sanitizer as they came on and off the floor, and hand sanitizer dispensers were placed at the doors.
Before every press conference with members of Congress, staff members thoroughly wiped down the podium and microphones to minimize transmission risk. The few reporters left at the Capitol all sat several feet apart from each other to try to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Reporters were urged to give lawmakers space to adhere to those guidelines, even as the number of press at the Capitol dwindled due to the threat from the virus.
The police and support workers inside the Capitol are also at risk.
Two members of the Capitol Police have also tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting an outcry from their labor committee, which has asked for every frontline officer to be tested, for extra hazard pay for officers, and protective equipment for officers.