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McConnell keeps distance from White House, citing doubts about COVID-19 protocols

Senate majority leader was absent from SCOTUS Rose Garden event

Demonstrators from Political Action wear hazmat suits near the White House South Lawn Thursday to highlight the Trump Administration’s recent COVID-19 outbreak.
Demonstrators from Political Action wear hazmat suits near the White House South Lawn Thursday to highlight the Trump Administration’s recent COVID-19 outbreak. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday he has actively avoided the White House since early August over concerns the Trump administration is not taking enough precautions against COVID-19.

Speaking in his home state of Kentucky, McConnell said he speaks frequently with President Donald Trump on the phone, but has opted out of visiting the White House since his last trip there on Aug. 6.

“Because my impression was their approach to how to handle this is different from mine and what I insisted that we do in the Senate, which is to wear a mask and practice social distancing,” McConnell told reporters.

At an event in Bourbon, County, Ky., later on Thursday, he took a more direct jab at the White House protocols.

“I personally didn’t feel that they were approaching protection from this illness in the same way that I thought was appropriate for the Senate, and the Senate has been operating in a way that I think has largely prevented contraction of this disease,” he said.

McConnell’s comments come as the Senate floor is closed for business due to news of three positive tests in the GOP caucus and concerns about a wider outbreak at the White House. Trump and about two dozen other people in his close circle, including the military aide who holds the nuclear football and multiple press aides, have tested positive for COVID-19.

Late last week, the president announced he had tested positive. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina tested positive after attending a Rose Garden event late last month celebrating the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to succeed the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson also tested positive, but was not in attendance at the Rose Garden event.

McConnell’s concerns about protocols at the White House did not stop top White House advisers from coming to the Capitol for meetings. Last week he met with Barrett, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and other White House aides — all mask-free — in the Mansfield room with press looking on.

The Capitol closed to the public in March as COVID-19 bore down on the nation. As Congress returned to work at the Capitol later in the spring, the Senate put in place some recommendations for social distancing.

Committee meetings have been held in larger spaces to allow for distancing and McConnell on Monday touted that Senate committees had held more that 150 hybrid hearings, with some lawmakers and witnesses participating remotely.

Democrats have suspended their weekly caucus meetings, opting for conference calls instead of in-person lunches. But Republicans have still been meeting in person, although in a larger room and with limits on the number of lawmakers to a table.

While most senators and staff wear masks around the Capitol, the Senate does not have a mask mandate, including in cramped spaces like elevators or the enclosed Senate subway linking the Hart and Dirksen office buildings to the Capitol.

McConnell himself has been a vocal advocate for masks, relentlessly promoting the simple act both in Washington and at events in Kentucky.

The majority leader has resisted calls from senators on both sides of the aisle, and within his own leadership team, for a formal testing program in the Senate. He has argued that the Senate has been able to contain the virus.

There is testing available on Capitol Hill, but it is limited and not part of a larger testing regimen or strategy.

Beginning in March, symptomatic members were able to be tested by the Office of the Attending Physician, and over the summer, testing expanded to all members of Congress.

On Friday, the OAP issued new guidance for lawmakers and staff.

“The testing is available in medically indicated cases of Members who have symptoms suggestive of coronavirus or who are concerned they may have been exposed to a known positive Covid 19 patient,” the guidance reads. “The testing is available throughout the day. Other staff members who have been in contact with a known positive case here at the Capitol are also offered testing.”

Even this expansion of testing is a slower and less robust testing scheme than the one in place at the White House, where personnel, media and other visitors undergo more routine rapid testing for those coming into contact with the president or high-ranking officials. There are also random tests of other employees in the White House complex.

But the testing protocols at the White House, which were not paired with strict adherence to other public health guidance, including mask wearing, social distancing and contract tracing, did not prevent the current outbreak.

“You’ve heard about other places that have had a different view, and they are, you know, paying the price for it. But in the Senate … we practiced social distancing and wore a mask and are continuing to operate normally, adapting to the post-coronavirus situation,” McConnell said.

McConnell reiterated that social distancing and widespread mask wearing are the best options until there is a vaccine.

“I think the message I have for everybody is … wear your mask and practice social distancing. It’s the only way we know of to prevent the spread until we get a vaccine,” he said.

Senate Democrats argue there is more that should be done within the Senate to prevent wider spread among lawmakers, staff and support workers on Capitol Hill.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, the top Democrat on the Rules and Administration Committee, are pushing for the chamber to require masks and establish a formal testing program amid the spike in new cases within their ranks.

On Monday the two Democrats introduced a resolution calling for the enforcement of social distancing requirements in the Senate office buildings and the Senate-side of the Capitol, in addition to a contact-tracing program.

“Senate Republicans must join us here in reality and acknowledge that through their inaction, they are creating a truly dangerous situation,” Schumer said in a statement.

The resolution would align the Senate with public health guidelines for indoor workplaces.

Klobuchar and Schumer called the lack of a “coordinated and comprehensive COVID–19 strategy in the Senate … a threat to the legislative branch.”

“I’ve been following following the advice of the CDC, and the Capitol physician,” McConnell told reporters in Kentucky.

“In other words, I think we’ve shown that we can, we can, function safely,” McConnell said of the Senate.

Jennifer Shutt and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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