Capitol physician says Senate lacks capacity to test all senators
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has repeatedly vowed that the Senate can operate safely amid the pandemic with proper social distancing and masks. While originally planning to come back next week, House Democrats said they decided against returning after consulting with Monahan. He did not address on Thursday whether he believed it was safe for the Senate to return, one of the people familiar with the call said.
Official guidance from Monahan is expected to be distributed publicly as soon as Thursday. Democrats have repeatedly raised concerns about the safety of Capitol employees next week and several have pressed McConnell for a plan.
“I have not yet seen, personally … a safety plan to protect those people who have to come back to the Capitol in order for us to do anything. Nor a plan to make sure that we are not spreading the virus ourselves or to the employees,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, on Wednesday.
Some Democrats also have indicated they may not return next week if the Senate is not taking up coronavirus relief legislation or doing oversight on the aid effort. McConnell is focused on confirming judicial and executive nominees in the coming days.
“I don’t begrudge a senator expressing their personal concerns, but that shouldn’t mean that the entire Senate ceases to function,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) on Thursday. “We’re going to try really very hard to make sure everybody is safe. And not exposed.”
Top Senate officials are already sketching out how the Senate will operate next week. Monahan, McConnell chief of staff Sharon Soderstrom and Rules Committee staff director Fitzhugh Elder briefed Republican chiefs of staff about the Senate’s return on Thursday.
The officials encouraged staff to telework as much as possible, and told Senate offices to screen staffers that have to come to the Hill. Senators and aides are being asked to wear masks at all times, unless a senator is giving a speech.
Staffers were also informed that office buildings have been disinfected and sanitizer and masks will be distributed. The number of senators on the floor during votes will also be limited. Hearings will only take place in large committee rooms where senators and staff can be appropriately spaced out.
Republicans will hold their party lunches in a cavernous room in the Hart Office Building, allowing three senators per table to promote social distance. Democrats say they will conduct all their party business by conference call.