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Business as usual for House after Trump positive COVID-19 test

Previously scheduled hearings proceed, effect on relief talks unclear

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leaves her weekly news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on Thursday, October 1, 2020.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leaves her weekly news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on Thursday, October 1, 2020. (om Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered no indications Friday of imminent changes to congressional operations after President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump tested positive for COVID-19.

“The distancing, that’s hard, the distancing because people are trying to communicate about legislation and the rest,” the California Democrat said on MSNBC. “But I do think that the president, the situation with the president then makes it clearer that everybody has to keep their distance on both sides, on both sides of the aisle.”

[Trump’s test shows how COVID-19 might threaten Barrett confirmation]

Pelosi made clear that message was largely directed at Republicans, whom she said “in most cases mimic what the president says about masks, about distancing and the rest, which is most unfortunate.”

She added: “That’s why we’ve had to institute rules in the chamber in terms of mask wearing being required: ‘You don’t have a mask you can’t come in; you don’t have a mask we have one for you.’”

However, Pelosi expressed hope that Trump’s exposure “with all the protection he has,” might be “a learning experience” that translates into more aggressive action to combat the virus and limit its spread.

“This is tragic. It’s very sad,” she said. “But it also is something that, again, going into crowds unmasked and all the rest was sort of a brazen invitation for something like this to happen. Sad that it did, but nonetheless hopeful that it will be a transition to a saner approach to what this virus is all about.”

She also said she hopes the president recovers: “Hopefully this won’t be so serious for the president, but by dint of age he’s younger than I am, so I can say that, and shall we say other considerations I’m glad that he will have the best possible care.”

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Friday that the president is experiencing mild symptoms.

Pelosi, who as speaker is second in the presidential line of succession, said she has not heard from the White House on continuity of government matters but said military and government officials ensure that is ongoing.

“That continuity of government is always in place,” she said.

Vice President Mike Pence, first in the line of succession, tested negative for COVID-19 on Friday.

Conducting the interview from the Capitol, Pelosi noted she was tested Friday morning “out of an abundance of caution” but has not gotten the results yet. The only White House official Pelosi said she’s been in contact with recently is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who informed her earlier Friday morning he tested negative for COVID-19.

Pelosi and Mnuchin met in person on Wednesday to negotiate another coronavirus aid package, continuing those negotiations over the phone Thursday. Although Mnuchin was reportedly advised he did not have close enough contact with the president to need to quarantine, further negotiations appear likely to continue over the phone given Pelosi’s concerns about the accuracy of the rapid tests the White House uses.

“I have concern about the test, because obviously the tests that are happening at the White House are not as accurate as they should be, and that’s a discussion that we have to have, especially when it has led to exposure of the president of the United States,” she said. “That should have been avoided.”

Contact tracing

Several members of Congress regularly come in contact with the president and administration officials. Among those near Trump and his aide Hope Hicks, who tested positive before the president, this week was Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, who traveled with them on Air Force One to the presidential debate on Tuesday.

Jordan, appearing on Fox News Friday via video conferencing, said he planned to get tested for COVID-19 that day and said “out of caution” he would participate in a Coronavirus Select Committee hearing virtually from his office.

“I think that’s probably the safest course of action,” he said.

Jordan said he “feels fine,” noting he had a “great workout” Thursday, and seemed unconcerned about having contracted the virus from Trump.

“I was only around the president for just a brief, brief amount of time,” Jordan said. “And I didn’t fly back with him on Air Force One. I stayed to do some TV on Fox.”

Pelosi said the Capitol’s Office of the Attending Physician has a contact tracing plan and is in touch with the District of Columbia.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer issued a statement Friday saying he hopes the Trumps “recover quickly” and urging shared responsibility to slow the virus’s spread through mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.

The Maryland Democrat, who is responsible for the House schedule, did not mention any changes to the congressional calendar or operations in his statement.

Indeed, the news of the president’s testing positive had little obvious impact on Capitol Hill Friday.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alexander Azar testified in person as scheduled before the House’s Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on Friday morning.

Azar wore a disposable surgical mask throughout his testimony, as did Chairman James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., while presiding over the hearing.

Some members, including House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, appeared remotely from their offices, but members in both parties were also in the hearing room.

Some members on the dais did not wear masks while asking questions of Azar, though they were generally socially distanced.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a New York Democrat who is chairwoman of the Small Business Committee, asked specifically, “Did President Trump tell you to slow the testing down?” Azar avoided that question, claiming he would not comment on conversations with the president.

One thing Hoyer did, however, was mention was the urgency to get another coronavirus relief package done.

“I hope that President Trump and Republicans in the Senate will work with us in the coming days to reach a bipartisan agreement that will be signed into law,” he said. “We must ensure that Americans have the assistance they need to stay safe and to provide for their families.”

Pelosi, likewise, used Trump’s situation to push for a deal.

“Having the treatment is very important,” she said. “We’re glad the president has it. We want it for everyone. That’s in our bill.”

The House after finishing its Friday voting session is planning to go forward with its scheduled recess through the November election, but with members to be available to return if there is a coronavirus relief deal to consider.

Pelosi talked extensively about the need for more aid but offered little news on the status of the negotiations, reiterating obstacles she highlighted on Thursday like Republicans’ unwillingness so far to agree to expanding refundability of the earned income and child tax credits to get money into the pockets of lower-income Americans.

The speaker called the $1.6 trillion offer Mnuchin put on the table “the heel of a loaf of bread” and said it would never have the votes to pass the Democrat-controlled House.

“Maybe because I’m a woman you expect me to accept — some people expect me to accept whatever they put out, but when I put something out … it’s so partisan,” she said. “When they put it out, it’s ‘Why don’t you take that. When we put it out it’s so partisan.’”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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