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A few senators are calling for committees to meet via teleconference and for votes to be cast by some method other than forcing members to be in the same room. Experts and government officials are warning that extreme isolation measures are the only way to avoid overrunning the health system, which could cause millions of deaths. COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is particularly lethal to older people, and the average senator is 63 years old.
Dick Durbin started the push Tuesday when he took the Senate floor to ask why they were still meeting despite pleading with Americans to stay home and work remotely. “It’s time for the Senate to wake up to the 21st century and to make sure we’re using technology that allows us to communicate to each other without any risk to public health,” he said.
But the movement quickly hit a brick wall. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected changing the voting rules, and, based on conversations with many senators, there was no groundswell of support Wednesday for working remotely. Quite the opposite: Several senators argued it is important for them to be seen working in the Capitol.
“I think it’s important that we let the country know that we’re still on the job and we’re not leaving until we get it done,” said Sen. Mike Rounds.
Sen. Joni Ernst said senators showing up for work shows leadership. Sen. Thom Tillis said that, just as it is critical for health care workers to show up to work, it is also critical for senators to be there and do their jobs.
“There is what I consider the obligation of example and reassurance,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer. “And I think us being here provides that.”
McConnell rejected remote voting, but he did enact new social distancing policies. Votes are held open for a half an hour so senators can show up one or two at a time, vote, then head back to their offices.
This was only partly effective. With the usual crowd of tourists gone and reporters down to a skeleton crew, the Capitol felt half deserted. But only half. Security continues to attend the doors, staffers run the cafeterias and keep the place clean, political aides ferry around their bosses and set up press conferences.
Senators tried social distancing to mixed results. Some walked to votes side by side, discussing the next big economic aid bill. At one point, Sen. Bernie Sanders had to squeeze around Sen. Susan Collins, who was in an impromptu hallway media scrum. Everyone is supposed to keep several feet of distance, but this breaks down regularly. Because of all this, a few senators openly said that showing up to the Capitol freaks them out.
“Yeah, more than normally,” said Sen. Jon Tester.
Tester said it was tone deaf to require senators to congregate at the same time Americans are being told that self-isolating is a matter of life or death. “It makes me wonder if leadership around here really understands what the magnitude of this is,” he said.
Sen. Rand Paul, not a big fan of government in normal times, said Congress should probably practice what it preaches.
Still, they remain a clear minority. Several senators told BuzzFeed News, from a few feet away, that their social distancing measures and handwashing should be sufficient. In the House, more than two dozen members signed a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging her to let them vote remotely. The House is planned to be in recess this week and next, while the Senate currently plans to sit indefinitely until a coronavirus aid package is passed.
Two members of Congress have now tested positive for COVID-19, and an employee of Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell’s became the first Hill staffer to test positive. Several senators have come into contact with infected people and subsequently self-quarantined, such as Sens. Ted Cruz, Rick Scott, Cory Gardner, and Lindsey Graham. House Reps. Matt Gaetz, Mark Meadows, Doug Collins, and Paul Gosar have done the same.
Ultimately, Congress may find the decision is made for them. Sen. Marco Rubio said that one reason to act quickly is that physically meeting may soon become impossible. Before it was confirmed that members had tested positive, he floated that very possibility.
“I don’t think we can operate as if we can just bring the Senate and the House back whenever we want,” he said.
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