Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) adjusts his face mask in early April after a tour of a convention-center field hospital in Edison, N.J. (Pool photo by Chris Pedota/Record/AP)

A prominent Democrat suggested Thursday that the Senate’s return to work next week would put support workers on Capitol Hill — many of them racial minorities — at undue risk of contracting covid-19.

The comment from Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a former presidential candidate, was an implicit criticism of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to convene the chamber after a month-long hiatus prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, and it highlighted significant discomfort on Capitol Hill over a return to legislative business — even with social distancing precautions in place.

“We’re going to be pulling people [into the Capitol] against the rules of the city,” Booker said on a conference call organized by Senate Democrats. “We are now going to have thousands of people coming to work against the rules that they’ve established. I do not know what the health justification of that is.”

While many lawmakers hail from parts of the country where infections have been relatively limited, that has not been true of the Washington metropolitan area, which thousands of Capitol workers call home. Nearly 2,000 new cases were reported Thursday in the District, Maryland and Virginia — the second-highest total since the pandemic began.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has issued a stay-at-home order effective through May 15, as has Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D). Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has issued an indefinite stay-at-home order.

McConnell (R-Ky.) is standing by his decision to return the Senate to work Monday, dismissing criticism that the move will unduly put lawmakers at risk. He has maintained that the Senate can operate safely with the appropriate precautions.

“We’re going to honor our constitutional duty to the American people and conduct our business in person,” McConnell said Thursday during an interview on Fox News Channel, arguing that if bus drivers and other essential personnel need to report to work, then so do lawmakers.

In a conference call on Thursday, the attending congressional physician, Brian P. Monahan, told GOP senators that his office does not have enough tests for every senator every day, the way the White House does with anyone coming in close proximity to President Trump. The physician will continue the practice of limiting tests to those showing symptoms of the disease, according to a Republican who was on the call and requested anonymity to speak freely.

Politico first reported on the call.

House drops plans to return to D.C., citing virus risk; McConnell vows Senate will vote Monday

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reached the opposite conclusion this week on the House returning to Washington, citing advice from Monahan.

Pelosi told reporters at a news conference Thursday — one held at the Capitol, while other congressional leaders have stuck to conference calls — that Monahan’s advice was “it’s better to wait” given the continued rise in local cases.

“Now, what they advised the Senate, I don’t know, but they are a hundred [members]. We are four times that,” she said. “I can’t speak for the Senate, but I know what our responsibility is in the House.”

Pelosi said Thursday that the House could return as soon as May 11 if there is new coronavirus relief legislation to vote on. On Monday, House leaders announced that the House would return May 4, before reversing course less than a day later, citing Monahan’s advice and the potential impact on the Capitol workforce.

House committees may meet in the interim, Pelosi said, and she expressed fresh support for a proxy-voting proposal that would allow lawmakers to authorize a colleague to cast floor votes on their behalf.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Thursday he remained skeptical of proxy voting but supported the ability of certain committees to meet and advance their work while other lawmakers kept their distance from Washington.

McCarthy also expressed doubts about proposals to use videoconferencing technology to advance bills in committee. “We’re not prepared for that,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Thursday that McConnell did not consult with him on the decision to return senators to Washington next week and that he did not know whether McConnell consulted with health authorities before doing so.

“I want to make sure that the workers are protected in every way, and many of them are people of color,” he said on the call, which focused on a Democratic report highlighting racial disparities in the virus’s impacts. Democrats, Schumer added, would look “very, very carefully” at health and safety guidance for Capitol operations to see whether protections were adequate.

Booker went further in questioning the racial equity of calling the Senate back, musing about the “lines of workers coming in that are essential workers to the functioning of the Senate — see them being disproportionately minority.”

McConnell spokesman Doug Andres, said the majority leader consulted with Schumer weeks ago in setting the May 4 return date and said further health and safety guidance would be issued this week.

Voting in late March on a $2 trillion relief bill, senators took rudimentary precautions, including extending the duration of votes to discourage close contact on the Senate floor. The House returned to Washington last week to vote on a subsequent relief bill, and similar precautions were taken. Most members wore masks on the House floor, though a notable minority — most of them Republicans — chose not to wear them.

‘We’re basically ill-prepared’: Hobbled House majority frets about its effectiveness amid pandemic

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the oldest member of the Senate, asked McConnell in a letter Wednesday to reconsider his decision, in the interest of “public health and sending the right message to the nation.” She cited, among other things, the diagnosis of several covid-19 cases among Capitol Police officers, as well as construction workers on the House side of the Capitol campus.

“This is not the time to back off of protective measures when the disease is not yet in check,” wrote Feinstein, 86. “Clearly the coronavirus is present at the Capitol.”

Schumer has not gone so far to call McConnell’s decision a mistake but has instead encouraged Republicans to use their time in Washington to conduct oversight of the response to the pandemic.

Scheduled Senate business for next week includes the confirmation of an inspector general for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a hearing for President Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and an Armed Services Committee hearing on the national security implications of allowing a portion of the telecommunications spectrum for 5G cellular service.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said Thursday, after presiding over a brief Senate meeting where no business was conducted, that he was confident that the chamber could conduct its business safely amid the pandemic. He noted that Pelosi has “been here awhile” in Washington, coming to the Capitol for TV interviews and her news conference Thursday.

“I don’t know why some other people feel more concerned,” he said, adding, “I don’t begrudge a senator expressing their personal concerns, but that shouldn’t mean that the entire Senate ceases to function [and] we simply can’t be seen doing our job if we’re going to be passing trillion-dollar bills without even being here and debating.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.