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McConnell: Senate will be in Monday despite positive COVID-19 tests

Senators scheduled to consider the first of five U.S. District Court judges

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he expects senators back in Washington on Monday despite the uncertainty surrounding their exposure to COVID-19 in the wake of the positive diagnoses of President Donald Trump and Sen. Mike Lee.

“We’ve been operating in the same environment now since the 1st of May and been able to do Senate business. There’s no reason why we can’t continue to do that,” McConnell told a reporter Friday at an event in Kentucky.

That promise to continue operating as normal comes even though Trump, Lee and others who attended last weekend’s White House event announcing the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett disclosed positive coronavirus tests Friday. The positive tests have led some to call for the Senate to avoid meeting and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that call for a period of self-isolation.

McConnell made his comments Friday afternoon, a few hours before North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis revealed he had tested positive for the virus. Tillis was among the Republican senators at Saturday’s White House event, and was seated mere feet away from Lee, Utah’s senior senator.

“I will be following the recommendations of my doctor and will be self-isolating at home for 10 days and notifying those I’ve been in close contact with. Thankfully, I have no symptoms and I feel well. As we all know, COVID-19 is a very contagious and deadly virus, especially because many carriers are asymptomatic,” Tillis said in a statement.

The Senate is scheduled to be in session Monday afternoon to begin consideration of five U.S. District Court nominations in Ohio, Florida and Kansas teed up by McConnell earlier this week.

The Kentucky Republican has a tight timeline if he wants to to get Barrett confirmed before Election Day, and told reporters he hopes to take up her nomination after it is reported out of the Judiciary Committee on or around Oct 22.

He did not commit to a final vote before the election.

Operating the Senate in the middle of the pandemic, McConnell said, “has not kept us from operating as we would normally, and there’s no reason to expect that to be the case in the foreseeable future.”

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Lee, as a Senate Judiciary member, would cast a vote on whether to recommend Barrett’s nomination out of committee, and with no Democratic support expected, his vote could be important. The same goes for Tillis, another member of the Judiciary Committee.

Lee announced Friday he had sought medical advice Thursday after experiencing symptoms consistent with “longtime allergies.” He tested positive for coronavirus that afternoon and said he would self-isolate for 10 days.

Tillis, who is in a competitive re-election race, was criticized for not wearing a mask when he attended Trump’s Republican National Convention nomination acceptance speech in August at the White House. He later on said he should have been wearing a mask.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune echoed McConnell on Friday, telling Fox News that Trump and Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham are “very intent” on moving forward with the hearing and confirmation process.

Thune said that if Lee or others could not make it to the first few days of Barrett’s nomination hearings scheduled to begin Oct. 12, they could appear virtually. Graham tweeted out as much Friday evening: “Any Senator who wants to participate virtually will be allowed to do so.”

“Obviously, there are a few hiccups along the way here,” Thune said. “But if everything stays on schedule, stays on track, we can set up to have a vote at the conclusion of the hearings.”

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., in an interview Friday with MSNBC, noted Lee’s attendance at the previous day’s Senate Judiciary markup, at times with his mask off, and other close interactions he had with senators this week on the Hill.

Lee was also spotted sitting close to senators at the White House on Saturday at the Barrett announcement. Lee met with Barrett in the Capitol on Tuesday.

University of Notre Dame President John Jenkins, who also attended Saturday’s event, has since revealed a positive test as well.

Murphy called the White House ceremony a “super-spreader event.”

He suggested senators who have potentially been exposed to those diagnosed with COVID-19 should comply with CDC self-isolation recommendations, potentially requiring the Senate to halt business for two weeks.

It would protect lawmakers and all the other support staff who work at the Capitol complex, Murphy said. “There are a lot of low-income cafeteria workers, maintenance workers who are exposed.”

He also advocated widespread testing of the Capitol community.

New guidance released Friday said lawmakers and staff on Capitol Hill now have expanded access to on-site COVID-19 testing through the Office of the Attending Physician, though there is no uniform testing regime for the legislative branch.

Katherine Tully-McManus and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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