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Unsettling day provides little coronavirus guidance for Congress

Leaders, officials disagree on who makes the call to change security and health protocols on the Hill

On Monday, as Congress returned to the Capitol with a rapidly growing roster of members exposed to the new coronavirus, leaders and high-ranking officials could not agree on who has the ultimate authority to change security and health protocols on the Hill, where thousands of lawmakers, staffers and visitors interact every day.

At the end of a remarkably unsettling day, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Monday that despite several lawmakers being under self-quarantine after coming in contact with people infected with the coronavirus, there will not be changes to the House schedule and legislative work will continue as planned — at least for now.

“At the present time, there is no reason for us not to continue with our vital legislative work in the Capitol,” Pelosi wrote in a Monday evening “Dear Colleague” letter. 

The House Democratic Caucus will hear from the chamber’s sergeant-at-arms, attending physician and the chief administrative officer Tuesday morning for an update on protocols to continue operation of the Capitol and to prepare offices for new developments or further spread of the coronavirus. 

One House Democrat, California’s Julia Brownley, announced Monday that an individual whom she met with in Washington tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. “Out of an abundance of absolute caution, my DC staff and I are self-monitoring and maintaining social distancing practices,” she said in a statement. “Neither I, nor my staff, are experiencing any symptoms at this time.”

She said that she has decided to close her D.C. office in the Rayburn Building for the week and that she and her staff will be working remotely to serve her constituents. 

A handful of House Republicans are also on self-quarantine after they were informed that while at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, they had interacted with a person who later tested positive for COVID-19.

Adding extra anxiety to those lawmakers’ stories: At least a couple of them, Doug Collins of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida, had been in close contact with President Donald Trump last week and even Monday, in Gaetz’s case, on Air Force One.

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At a White House briefing on Monday, Trump did not answer questions about whether he has been tested for the virus. Gaetz has taken a test and is awaiting the result.

But another House Republican exposed to the infected person at CPAC, Louie Gohmert of Texas, was on Capitol Hill on Monday.

Gohmert told reporters Monday night that he was feeling “great, thanks for asking.”

When asked if there should be discussion of restrictions or limitation of visitors to the Capitol and congressional office buildings, many members said they would defer to the top medical authority on Capitol Hill, Attending Physician Brian Monahan. But he has said the decision lies with leadership, which has lead to confusion about who actually has the final say. 

“We should rely on [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines and on our attending physician making decisions, not only about tours but about CODELs for example — and other things that people were intending to do during the breaks,” said Florida Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala, a former Health and Human Services secretary.

“We don’t know how all of this will play out,” said Tennessee GOP Rep. Phil Roe, a medical doctor. “This particular virus appears to affect older people more than younger people, and so you do need to take precautions and be careful. But I don’t think you have to shut the whole Capitol down because of this.”

Monahan made clear last week that his office would not be making those tough calls about access to the Capitol, placing the responsibility on congressional leaders. 

“There are various prerogatives leadership may employ with regard to access to the Capitol and limitations,” Monahan said. But Pelosi said a decision to close the Capitol to the public was not hers to make.

“At this time, there’s no reason to do so, but it’s not my decision. It’s a security and health decision,” she said Monday afternoon. 

Closing the Capitol Visitor Center or limiting who can enter the Capitol or visit the office buildings could send a powerful signal to the country and the world about the resiliency and openness of Congress. 

“The nation’s Capitol building belongs to the people, which is one of the unique things about American democracy. And so I think there will be great reluctance to shut it down,” Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York said Monday evening. 

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Rep. Debbie Dingell said Congress will remain open. 

“We are here, we are working and we’re gonna make sure we’re doing what we gotta do for the country,” the Michigan Democrat said. 

Dingell said she wouldn’t judge or admonish Gohmert, who announced that he would continue working as usual despite coming in contact with the infected individual at CPAC.

“He’s talked to his doctor. He’s got to make his own decision. Like I’ve got to make my own decisions,” she said.

Dingell said lawmakers need to lead by example and model behavior, such as regular hand-washing and avoiding handshakes, that everyone should be utilizing.

“I’m not going to judge any of my colleagues,” she said.

Jeffries said he and his office are still holding face-to-face meetings on Capitol Hill. But he said other members are being cautious about events that draw larger crowds into a single space, like in-person town halls in their districts.

The New York Democrat said he knows that in recent days a number of his colleagues have held tele-town halls or events on Facebook Live and that the substitutes are “a change that many members have found to be reasonable and appropriate.”

He said he’d expect to see more of those virtual gatherings happening during the district work period that is scheduled for next week. 

Jeffries told reporters that when the topic of lawmakers voting remotely came up in a Monday evening meeting, Pelosi dismissed the notion outright. 

According to one House Democrat, Rep. Eric Swalwell brought up his bill that would enable members of Congress to virtually participate in committee hearings and to vote remotely on suspension bills from their home districts. Pelosi responded with a simple and definitive “no.”

“To the extent that Pelosi shut it down, it’s shut down,” Jeffries said of the remote-voting proposal.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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