Despite Outbreak, Congress Takes Its Chances Without Widespread Coronavirus Testing

Oct 13, 2020
Originally published on October 13, 2020 10:30 am

The Republican-controlled Senate returns this month in a high-stakes gamble: Three members tested positive for the coronavirus as the Senate is moving full steam ahead to confirm a new justice to the Supreme Court.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., one of the GOP senators to test positive, recently underscored his party's determination to wrap up the confirmation process for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court. Johnson says he's ready to vote on the Senate floor for Barrett β€” infected or not.

"I've already told leadership, I'll go in a moon suit," Johnson told a radio talk show on Denver-based 630 KHOW.

The latest outbreak highlights the absence of a widespread testing program for Congress more than seven months after the World Health Organization declared a COVID-19 pandemic.

In a rare point of agreement, both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have fended off calls to regularly screen the Capitol community for the illness.

"I think we've shown that we can function safely," McConnell said of the Senate's precautions, despite the lack of testing.

Despite growing bipartisan calls for expanded screening plans, including from top members of her own party, Pelosi isn't convinced yet, either.

She says such a plan has to meet the needs of more than 500 lawmakers and 20,000 workers at the Capitol complex. And that would mark a large undertaking for the Capitol's small office of the attending physician.

"My confidence in this β€” respectful of those views β€” is with the House attending physician, who will determine when it is necessary," Pelosi recently told CBS' Face The Nation.

Senate delays its return

The House is slated to be in recess this month. However, the Senate, which was due to return last Monday, has now delayed its next session by two weeks to Oct. 19.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee proceeded with Barrett's nomination hearings on Monday. Mike Lee of Utah, one of its GOP members who tested positive this month, returned to the hearing room on the first day.

Lee, who tested positive Oct. 2, spoke without a mask for several minutes. He also shared a note from the attending physician clearing him to return 10 days after his positive test without a screening.

Democratic Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse delivered an immediate rebuke after Lee's remarks. Whitehouse took aim at the panel's chair, Sen. Lindsey Graham, who had tried to reassure members it was safe to meet in person.

"I don't know who has been tested, who should be tested, who is a danger, what contact tracing has been done on infected and exposed senators and staff. Nothing," Whitehouse said.

Regardless, McConnell and other Republicans say they can wrap up the confirmation process this month despite the outbreak. The Senate majority leader recently said the Senate has done better fending off the illness than the White House, where several people including Trump have tested positive.

But the larger Capitol community still doesn't have one White House option: widespread, regular testing. This, as lawmakers fly back and forth between hot spots and other locations.

So far, the coronavirus has infected more than 20 lawmakers and more than 120 workers, and dozens more have been forced to quarantine.

Currently, the office of the attending physician, Dr. Brian Monahan, offers same-day results of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests in limited cases.

"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 office recently said in a statement to the Capitol complex.

The overall test positivity rate for the U.S. Congress has been less than 1%, the office said.

Demands for more testing grow

In the face of the latest outbreak, bipartisan calls have grown to install a broader screening system for the illness.

"The U.S. Senate has become a COVID-19 hotspot and we need to take immediate action," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a recent statement. "Senate Republicans must join us here in reality and acknowledge that through their inaction, they are creating a truly dangerous situation."

Last week, Schumer joined forces with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to call for more testing, mask wearing and contact tracing. Schumer and Klobuchar filed a resolution calling for the changes.

"We don't think that's been occurring like it should," Klobuchar, who is the ranking member of the Rules Committee that oversees such efforts, told reporters.

The month began with Lee and GOP Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina testing positive for the coronavirus. Both had attended Trump's White House event to announce Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee.

The Sept. 26 affair appears to have triggered an outbreak, forcing Trump to be hospitalized and infecting first lady Melania Trump and a wave of top administration officials.

It left Washington, D.C., officials, led by Mayor Muriel Bowser, looking for answers. The district has seen a growing number of positive cases, and there's still no clear sign of contact tracing from the White House event.

At least nine Republican members of Congress attended the Barrett event, most of whom are on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Aside from Lee and Tillis, the remaining seven members said they tested negative in the days that followed. Some entered quarantines.

It's a reminder of the risks still facing the Capitol, says Illinois Republican Rep. Rodney Davis, the ranking member of the House Administration Committee who has called for the screening plan for several months.

"It's a travesty that we don't have a testing modality system in place," Davis, who himself tested positive several weeks ago, recently told reporters.

This past week, two new House members tested positive for the illness: California Democratic Rep. Salud Carbajal and Illinois Republican Rep. Mike Bost.

Davis says screening is one of many tools needed to help fend off the virus.

"The best testing regime in the world still doesn't stop people from getting the virus, including the president and the first lady," he said.

Johnson sought his test after hearing Lee was infected. Johnson didn't attend the White House event, but those who had were on Capitol Hill for several days before Trump's diagnosis was made public.

Regardless, Johnson says the Barrett confirmation process will get done.

"Where there's a will, there's a way," he said. "We can do these things."

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