“You will not be recognized to speak for debate,” he told state Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell (D), according to the Des Moines Register. “You can continue to vote from the floor.”
That was, perhaps, exactly as she had planned it. As the Register first reported this week, Wessel-Kroeschell told members of her party that she wanted to challenge Grassley’s remarks by sporting jeans inside the statehouse, defying an established rule on formal attire.
“Not wearing a mask can kill people,” Wessel-Kroeschell told the newspaper. “So if they can enforce a denim dress code, they can also enforce a mask mandate.”
Grassley, who is the grandson of Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R), did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement to the Associated Press, Melissa Deatsch, a spokeswoman with the speaker’s office, said Grassley had the right to decide if and how he would direct state representatives to follow the rules.
“There is no way to enforce a mask mandate short of having state patrol remove a duly-elected representative from the floor, which is not something he is willing to do, for masks or for jeans,” Deatsch said in a statement. “Rep. Wessel-Kroeschell was in violation of House rules and it is within the speaker of the House’s discretion to handle such violations as he sees fit.”
Wessel-Kroeschell’s stunt, and the ensuing tiff between the two state lawmakers, is emblematic of a broader political fight over whether to require masks in government buildings. Months after face coverings emerged as a tension point in the pandemic — and as some Americans still refuse to wear them — Republicans in a number of statehouses have refused to cover their faces while legislating.
In the U.S. Capitol, at least three Democratic lawmakers announced they had tested positive for the coronavirus after taking shelter with their maskless GOP colleagues during the Jan. 6 riot. Two others have since proposed a bill that would penalize members of Congress with a $1,000 fine if they insist on leaving their faces exposed inside the Capitol.
Iowa has also seen masks come to symbolize a partisan divide. After refusing to require them for months, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) abruptly shifted course in November, reportedly buckling to pressure from health and business officials. More than 321,000 infections have been reported across the state, according to data tracked by The Post, and at least 4,975 people have died.
Yet vocal opposition from a small but loud group of Iowans remains. On Jan. 11, the first day of the new legislative session last month, a crowd of mostly maskless protesters packed into the statehouse rotunda to protest Iowa’s coronavirus restrictions.
The following week, Republicans voted down Democrats’ attempted edit to the chamber rules, which would have required all legislators and visitors to cover their faces inside. (Rules banning “jeans of any color” from the House floor have, however, been in place for at least the past year, according to the Register.)
At his virtual news conference on Jan. 21, Grassley said he did not see how he could enforce a mask policy without calling in law enforcement — a move he did not want to make.
So Wessel-Kroeschell, who has served in the statehouse since 2005, began her challenge to the speaker by looking inside her closet for the perfect pair of denim.
“They’re brand new, they’re clean, they don’t have any holes in them. They’re not hurting anybody,” she told the Register.
While it appears that Grassley let the state representative remain and vote on the floor, he did not recognize her when she requested to speak. She suggested that he might take a similar step when dealing with maskless lawmakers.
Over the weekend, several positive coronavirus test results were announced for people who work at the Iowa Capitol, including one Democratic lawmaker who is now isolating at home. But a handful of Republican peers, she noted, continue to show up at the statehouse with their faces uncovered.
“This is dangerous,” Wessel-Kroeschell said. “They’re putting all of us in danger.”