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Congress is back, testing lines are long, but omicron feels all too familiar

Hill gears up for another year of partisan pandemic tension

Chairs have been removed from the Dunkin’ in the Longworth House Office Building, seen here on Monday.
Chairs have been removed from the Dunkin’ in the Longworth House Office Building, seen here on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Dunkin’ in the basement of the Longworth House Office Building is a happening spot, a place where congressional staffers sit down for power meetings, not-so-powerful meetings and swigs of early morning caffeine. Hardly anyone was sitting on Monday, though.

That’s because the chairs were gone. 

Tables stood by themselves, looking bare, as people straggled past. House officials removed the chairs to discourage lingering, one of several changes at the Capitol aimed at slowing the rise of coronavirus during the omicron surge.

“Seating in the dining areas across the House campus has been limited in accordance with guidance from the Office of Attending Physician to rgyeduce congregation in high-traffic areas,” said David O’Boyle, spokesman for the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer. “As guidance changes, we will update and adjust seating in the House dining areas accordingly.”

The changes come as House members officially return to Washington for their first week of legislating in 2022, and as workers at the Capitol wonder how much this new year will resemble the last — marked by bitter skirmishes over pandemic safety that felt even more high-stakes because they were unfolding in the seat of American government.

The Office of the Attending Physician sent a memo urging everyone in the House and Senate to wear more robust N95 and KN95 masks and to let staffers work from home. While it doesn’t appear that Congress will be heading back to the beginning of the pandemic, when everything from eateries to the members’ gym shut down, partisan disagreements feel all too familiar.  

Several lawmakers announced they were isolating after testing positive and would ring in the legislative year remotely, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sean Casten and Jim Cooper on the Democratic side, along with GOP members like Young Kim, Ben Cline, Rick Crawford, Michael McCaul, Nancy Mace (infected for the second time) and John Katko.

“I will be voting by proxy in Washington this week and working from home as I recover,” said Katko, a New York Republican, in a Monday statement.

Lawmakers are under no obligation to disclose a positive test for COVID-19, and it’s possible more are sick but just haven’t said anything publicly.

Meanwhile, some Republicans continued to condemn proxy voting, even though members of their own party have readily used it. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has extended the pandemic-era practice until at least Feb. 13. 

“The American people show up to work, so should members of Congress,” tweeted Iowa freshman Rep. Ashley Hinson last week, echoing the hard line taken by Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House. Members must attest they are absent “due to the ongoing public health emergency” when they vote by proxy, though lawmakers in both parties have treated the tool as a perk, allowing them to spend time with family or jet off to the Conservative Political Action Conference, for example.

About 20 percent of the House ended up voting by proxy Monday, stating they were physically unable to attend the House session and designating another member to vote on their behalf. 

The House floor can look like a petri dish during votes, with lawmakers gathered together in clumps, whispering in each other’s ears. To kick off the new year, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer urged members to exit “immediately” after doing their business and promised action from his end too. “The House will be taking steps to lengthen voting times and limit the number of votes taken on the floor,” he wrote in a Friday letter to colleagues.

Hoyer also told colleagues to ditch cloth and surgical masks in favor of more protective ones, citing the new guidance from the OAP. One Republican, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, quickly pushed back, tweeting a picture late Monday of a KN95 mask and complaining it was made in China.

Going fully unmasked on the floor will remain a fineable offense, with a $500 charge for the first violation and $2,500 for subsequent ones. Two Republicans from Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Andrew Clyde, racked up more than $100,000 in combined fines last year as they defied the mandate.

House Democrats on Tuesday announced they would postpone their annual caucus retreat, originally scheduled for Feb. 9-11. They said they hoped to reschedule for sometime in March.

Lining up 

Lines for testing, where both masked and unmasked people stood for longer than an hour in some cases, snaked Monday through hallways toward the Capitol Visitor Center cafeteria. The testing site recently moved to the cavernous space to help meet the exploding demand for testing. 

The number of people testing positive in Washington remained at record-setting highs last week. The case rate per 100,000 in Washington was 1,308 according to the D.C. health department. A month ago, that number was 166.5.

Congressional staffers line up at the Covid-19 testing site in the Capitol Visitor Center in the Capitol on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The OAP did not respond to a CQ Roll Call request for updates on the Capitol positivity rate or more specifics on the number of people who tested positive at the Hill testing site. The latest memo, sent last Monday, said “dozens” were testing positive daily as the positivity rate jumped from 1 percent to 13 percent. 

On Tuesday the CAO added at-home test kits to its strategy, handing out a monthly allotment intended for House members and essential staff.

Most House eateries and services, like the dry cleaner and barbershop, remained open, in contrast to the early days of the pandemic when vending machines became some of the only sources of sustenance in the building. But the CAO encouraged people to order food ahead with an app used by Sodexo, which manages the House-side dining services. 

Some staffers say omicron has only further revealed divisions on campus, not just by party, but between the chambers. Senate-side eateries like the Cups coffee shop still had plenty of places to sit Monday, and one of the few changes was to the Senate Democratic caucus lunch, which was expected to be held virtually for the second straight week. Unlike the House, the Senate does not require masks. 

While rules have changed over the course of the pandemic, the one constant is that they’ve always been uneven across the complex. For some, the inauspicious start to the year feels like a bad sign. 

“Testing here — the lines are so long,” said a House Democratic staffer not authorized to speak on the topic. 

The staffer, who recently picked up her office’s allotment of 40 KN95 masks provided monthly by the CAO — an upgrade this month from surgical masks — said at-home tests can be purchased using member office funds, but have been difficult to find. 

The pandemic has meant an end to casual mingling and receptions. It’s taken some of the fun out of working for Congress and made it harder for her to do her job, she said.

The timing has also proved troublesome for Democrats seeking consensus on legislative items before the midterms overtake the Hill’s collective attention. 

“We’re in our last couple of months for doing legislative work before we go into an election cycle,” she said. “If you really want to get anything done this year, even if it’s not really controversial, you have to get it done before July.”

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