Other safety issues have been punted to the Office of Attending Physician of Congress, run by a reclusive doctor who is accountable only to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). That has meant health and safety guidance that often differs depending on location, with masks mandatory on the House floor and only recommended for the Senate.
Congressional leaders can’t even agree on what type of thermometer to use to monitor lawmakers and aides for coronavirus symptoms: Many businesses and doctor’s offices use a touchless forehead model, but some lawmakers say they’re not accurate enough, meaning that only oral or ear thermometers are used sporadically in the complex.
Almost five months after the pandemic landed in the Capitol, lawmakers remain divided and in a sense of limbo over coronavirus safety measures — worrying about an outbreak within their own ranks or among their staff. In the past week alone, three lawmakers announced positive tests for the coronavirus, including Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee.
On Thursday, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), bucking Pelosi, stepped out to formally endorse a widespread testing of everyone working on the campus.
The internal debate has turned into an upside-down version of what is happening with the partisan fights over coronavirus testing on the national stage. Republicans — who have been hesitant to challenge the Trump administration’s unwillingness to adopt a national testing strategy — have pushed for a comprehensive strategy inside the Capitol.
“I’m sure we could implement it on the Senate side, and we’ve got tentative plans that would allow us to do that, assuming they all work out, and I hope the House would be able to have a similar plan,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, told reporters.
Democrats, who have embraced Pelosi’s “testing, tracing and treatment” mantra for a national strategy to fight the virus, say such an approach won’t work for the Capitol. Pelosi and Democrats have advocated continuing social distancing measures that include requiring thousands of staff members to work from home and allowing lawmakers to participate by video at committee hearings and also vote remotely.
Pelosi has dismissed the idea of an expansive testing program in Congress as impractical because there are so many members of support staff who should also be tested.
“You think of members of Congress — oh, there are 535 — no. There are about 20,000 people who make the Capitol run,” Pelosi told reporters last week.
She also acknowledged that there is a concern about the image of members of Congress getting tested while much of the nation continues to face delays in getting test results.
“There are many people in the country who should be tested, should have access, in order to quantify the problem, but also to trace and to treat so that people don’t die. And I don’t think it’s a good idea for members of the Congress to say we should have it,” Pelosi said.
Ultimately, she placed the decision on the shoulders of Brian P. Monahan, a cancer specialist who has led the attending physician’s office since 2009. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s up to the Capitol physician,” she said.
An aide to Monahan said Thursday that he does not answer any questions from the media on any topic, including his current health and safety advice for those who work in the building.
When some House members asked to use their office funds to purchase touchless thermometers to test their staffs, House officials told them those were not reliable and they should instead purchase under-the-tongue or ear-canal thermometers.
“We asked the Attending Physician whether contactless thermometers should be purchased for use in the House and he said no. As with the other COVID related health measures, we implemented his guidance,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chair of the House Administration Committee, said in a statement.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), along with Davis, disagrees with Pelosi and Lofgren’s assertions that wider-scale testing would not be effective because the model used at the White House has been shown to produce false-negative tests.
Republicans note that the only reason Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) tested positive and is now quarantining is because he was supposed to travel with President Trump on Air Force One. Similarly, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) announced Thursday he has the virus after taking a required test because he was supposed to meet Trump in his state.
At least one company, One Medical Group, has offered to provide testing services on Capitol grounds, according to two people familiar with the discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak about internal deliberations. The company ran a mass outdoor testing site in New York City at the height of the pandemic there and has similar setups in the Washington area.
Republicans have argued that, as long as the public is prohibited from visiting Congress, large areas of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center would be well-suited as testing sites.
“We have space for it,” Blunt said in an interview, suggesting it could be implemented on the Senate side by the end of the month.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration offered three rapid-testing machines and 1,000 cartridges required for the test, according to Democrats and Republicans.
Democrats dismissed that as only enough capacity for about two days. And some worry that a widespread testing plan would just prompt lawmakers to bring more staff back into office buildings, creating more potential spread and requiring even more testing and building more logistical hurdles.
Lawmakers say their initial mitigation steps helped avert a full-blown outbreak inside the Capitol, which began with staggered roll call votes so that few lawmakers would be on the House or Senate floor at the same time. A vast majority of staffers now work from home.
Masks were encouraged and, on the Senate side, became nearly universal. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is perhaps the only senator or staffer who never wears a mask because he contracted the virus in the spring and claims he has immunity, though medical experts caution that is far from certain.
After last week’s announcement that Gohmert had the coronavirus, Pelosi ordered masks to be mandatory because Gohmert has been among the two dozen or so House Republicans who have regularly eschewed face coverings.
Confusion is the best description for what comes next in terms of trying to get better practices into the Capitol. As the virus surged this summer across the South and West, lawmakers began to express concern about the lack of testing.
Under current policy, staff members are not granted tests, and some who felt they had come in close contact with Gohmert, or aides working for him, were turned away and told to go to the public testing site at Capital One Arena in downtown Washington, according to Republicans.
Some rank-and-file lawmakers suggest Congress has been lucky to avoid an outbreak such as those plaguing some U.S. sports teams that have tried to restart operations.
The House and Senate are now adjourned from legislative session, sending hundreds of lawmakers home to pandemic hot spots such as California, Texas, Florida and Georgia, while Pelosi, McConnell and the administration continue to negotiate another coronavirus relief package.
If they reach a deal, close to 500 lawmakers will return to the Capitol, flying in from across the nation, with few ever being tested for the virus.
Davis cited his own experience in a national TV appearance Thursday, explaining that a small spike in his daily temperature checks prompted him to get his test while back home in Illinois. Without that test, he might have infected his family and constituents and, if he had been in Washington, plenty of staff members in the Capitol hallways, he said.
“It’s not just about us members of Congress. It’s about the staff, the essential workers that are there on Capitol Hill even when we’re not there,” Davis said on CNN.