Senators Possibly Exposed as Capitol Confronts Virus Spread
House’s Top Doctor Tells Lawmakers They Must Again Don Masks
(Bloomberg) -- A U.S. Senate committee postponed a hearing Wednesday after some of its members were potentially exposed to Covid-19, the latest sign of the virus’ rapid resurgence at the Capitol.
Michigan Democratic Senator Gary Peters, the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said his panel delayed the hearing because there was a “potential exposure of members.”
He declined to name which senators were possibly exposed or how. But he later tweeted that a fully vaccinated member of his staff tested positive for Covid. Peters said he has been tested and cleared to resume work.
In an evenly divided Senate that has several major pieces of legislation on its summer agenda -- including an emerging deal on a $579 billion infrastructure package and a $3.5 trillion budget resolution -- the absence of just one senator can dramatically alter the prospects for legislation. Two House members recently said they tested positive for Covid, and several staff members also have been infected.
The news comes just hours after Congress’s top physician reimposed a mask-wearing requirement for everyone, including lawmakers, while they are on the House floor or in House hallways and offices, and alerted senators they should wear masks, too.
A previous House-floor mask requirement for members and staff had been lifted last month. But in his updated guidance to lawmakers, Attending Physician Brian Monahan pointed out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending masks in some indoor spaces to reduce risks in response to the further spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus.
“For all House Office buildings, the Hall of the House, and House Committee Meetings, wearing of a well-fitted, medical grade, filtration face mask is required when an individual is in an interior space and other individuals are present,” Monahan said in a memo.
“For meetings in an enclosed U.S. House of Representatives controlled space, masks are REQUIRED,” Monahan emphasized.
Monahan sent a separate, similar letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. That letter reiterates “all individuals should wear a well-fitted mask” but stops short of requiring it in the Senate chamber. The Senate never had a mask mandate.
In the past 10 days, Representatives Vern Buchanan of Florida and Clay Higgins of Louisiana, both Republicans, have announced that they tested positive for the virus. Monahan mentions those cases in his memo, though not by name. In addition, Monahan said several congressional staffers, including some who had already been vaccinated, have also tested positive.
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Monahan’s memo says members will not be required to wear masks when they are alone, or when they are recognized to speak on the House floor. But failure to wear a mask in the Hall of the House in other circumstances will be subject to fines, he writes, as was the case under the previous rule.
The White House told staff on Tuesday evening that they must again wear masks.
The mask requirement in the House sparked a sharp partisan exchange.
On Tuesday night, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted: “Make no mistake — The threat of bringing masks back is not a decision based on science, but a decision conjured up by liberal government officials who want to continue to live in a perpetual pandemic state.”
Pelosi on Wednesday during a scrum with reporters responded to McCarthy’s remarks, and muddled audio from that suggested she called him a “moron.” Top Pelosi aide Drew Hammill later tweeted that her staff couldn’t verify what was said because of the poor quality of the recording but that “the Speaker believes that saying a mask requirement is ‘not a decision based on science’ is moronic.”
At a later news conference, Pelosi declined to directly address those remarks. “To say that wearing a mask is not based on science I don’t think is wise,” Pelosi said.
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