Congress opens amid fears of Covid spread
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic loomed large over every aspect of Sunday’s opening day of the 117th Congress, with fears of spreading the virus front and center and lawmakers fighting over masks on the floor of the House.
Lawmakers crowded into the Capitol in the closing days of Donald Trump’s presidency for the swearing in of hundreds of members and the election of Nancy Pelosi to speaker, all amid a Republican effort to challenge President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
Pelosi now leads a Democratic caucus with a much smaller margin, while the House itself now boasts a record number of women and people of color in its ranks.
“It gives me great pride to serve as speaker of the most diverse House of Representatives in the history of our country, with a record shattering 122 women” Pelosi said as the chamber burst into applause.
But with the pandemic still surging across the nation, the ever-present threat of the coronavirus dominated the day. In the starkest example, House officials created a plexiglass enclosure in a corner of the visitor’s gallery to allow three lawmakers — two Democrats and a Republican who are in quarantine after exposure to the virus — “to fulfill their Constitutional duties,” according to the Capitol physician. The so-called “holding facility” was created with “the highest possible safeguards,” the physician said in a statement.
Those three members — Reps. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) — all had a recent negative coronavirus test but were still in quarantine after exposure to the deadly virus, according to a statement from the Capitol physician. Rep. Gwen Moore, a Wisconsin Democrat who announced earlier this week she had tested positive but ended her quarantine on Saturday at midnight, was not one of the three, according to sources.
Moore told POLITICO that while she quarantined for two weeks and received permission from her doctor to attend the opening day, she had not received a negative Covid test by the time she reached the Capitol.
Some lawmakers and aides privately complained that potentially infectious individuals were permitted to be in the House chamber, though it would only be for one day. Quarantined members would be able to vote by proxy as soon as the House formally adopts its rules package on Monday. Some said they feared a Covid outbreak in the Capitol in the coming days.
Sunday’s stately rituals were designed with none of the usual pomp and circumstance. Hallways had far fewer well-dressed relatives, and celebratory luncheons were strictly prohibited. Still, there were plenty of handshakes, fist bumps and hugs exchanged — and at some points, the House floor was pure chaos, with Pelosi herself trying to remind members to socially distance.
Several House Republicans were seen on the floor without masks for minutes at a time, including firebrand freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — spurring a dispute on the floor about mask policies between the two parties’ aides. The Capitol physician himself, Dr. Brian Monahan, eventually joined the discussion on the floor.
Most lawmakers were sworn in without the company of a single guest in order to reduce coronavirus exposure, and have been told to remain in their offices except during votes.
Even Pelosi’s election — for what could be her final turn with the gavel — lacked the usual theatrics of a vote to confirm the next speaker. The vote took two and a half hours as lawmakers shuffled through the chamber in small groups to minimize their risks to the virus.
Pelosi had told her caucus on a private call last week that her “opponent is Covid,” though the math did not end up being a concern, with Democrats seeing just one absence on their side — Rep. Alcee Hastings, who is battling pancreatic cancer. Republicans had two absences — Reps.-elect David Valadao and Maria Elvira Salazar, who both recently tested positive for coronavirus. Another seat will remain open: New York’s 22nd district, where the race has not yet been called between Democratic Rep. Anthony Brindisi and GOP contender Claudia Tenney.
The vote, once again, sealed Pelosi in the record books, as the first woman to hold the position and the first person in six decades to regain the speaker’s gavel — now twice — after losing it.
Control of the Senate, meanwhile, remains uncertain, with two Georgia runoff races set for Tuesday that will determine whether Mitch McConnell or Chuck Schumer will be majority leader.
Sunday’s proceedings kicked off a packed week in Congress that will include a chaotic but doomed effort by Republicans to dethrone Joe Biden as president-elect, just one day after the two Senate races in Georgia.
Multiple GOP members, led by Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks in the House and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the Senate, have vowed to challenge those results in Trump’s last gasp at overturning Biden’s victory. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) was the first senator to join the House GOP’s effort to contest the election. Trump and his supporters have claimed — without evidence — that Biden only won because of “voter fraud,” but the legal challenges from Trump and his allies have largely failed.
That gambit will take place Wednesday, Jan. 6, when the House and Senate meet for a joint session to formally count the votes of the Electoral College. Vice President Mike Pence will be put in the awkward position of leading the joint session. That process is expected to drag on late into the night Wednesday or possibly the wee hours of Thursday, especially after almost a dozen GOP senators signed on to the effort on Saturday.
Even as Republicans attempted to undermine the presidential election, some made an attempt to extend an olive branch to Democrats after an incredibly polarizing term in the last Congress.
“I’ll be honest, I do not like what I see. It’s time we hold hands and talk to one another,” Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the longest-serving member of the House, said as he prepared to formally swear in Pelosi.
Instead of sparring over politics, Young suggested, “Let’s sit down and have a drink,” prompting applause and laughter in the chamber.
“I don’t drink but I’m happy to have ice cream with anybody anytime,” Pelosi said in response, as members again laughed and clapped.
But then minutes later, GOP Rep. Chip Roy of Texas forced the full House to wade into the GOP’s civil war over the presidential election results. Roy, who is opposed to the Brooks effort, formally objected to the seating of House members from the six states that Trump has contested, saying that their election wasn’t legitimate if they’re also contesting Biden’s win there.
Each of the opening week processes — from the first quorum call to the Electoral College vote — posed a logistical nightmare for Capitol officials charged with keeping members safe during the still-raging coronavirus outbreak.
Unlike for much of 2020, when many House lawmakers were able to vote by proxy and limit their travel to D.C., the start of the 117th Congress requires every member to vote in-person until the new rules package is adopted.
That means hundreds of members traveled to Washington after spending time with family over the holidays — likely without quarantining first in D.C.
The freshman class was sworn in as a group on the floor, preserving at least some part of the House’s bi-annual tradition, posing for group pictures and at least some outfit coordination.
But in a stark change from previous sessions, each newly elected member will be allowed only one guest in the House gallery on Sunday. (Returning members are not permitted guests.)
Congressional leaders have stepped up the coronavirus response in the Capitol in recent weeks, including an in-house testing site that delivers results within 24 hours. Still, many lawmakers and aides worry deeply about coronavirus spreading across the sprawling Capitol complex.
More than 50 members and members-elect have tested positive in recent months, including several who have been hospitalized. Last Tuesday, lawmakers mourned the death of their soon-to-be colleague, GOP Rep.-elect Luke Letlow of Louisiana, who died of Covid-19 at age 41 and was just days away from his swearing in. Pelosi and several other House leaders recognized Letlow in their speeches on Sunday.
In all, the 117th Congress includes roughly 60 incoming House members, including the 14 Republicans who flipped seats and helped chip away at the Democrats’ now-fragile majority.
The GOP’s freshmen class includes a record number of women — a much-needed boost after the conference had just 13 female members last term — as well as a mix of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Several freshmen are actually returning members: Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Pete Sessions (R-Texas), as well as Valadao.
One GOP freshman, Rep.-elect Mariannette Miller-Meeks, will be seated “provisionally” after she was certified the winner of a race by a margin of only six votes. Her Democratic challenger, Rita Hart, has filed a challenge with the House seeking closer scrutiny of the race, specifically, the roughly two dozen ballots that she claims were improperly excluded from the count.
One of the key differences in the new Congress, lawmakers said, was that Trump would be gone.
“I’m excited we can move ahead, and we won’t have the distractions,” Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.) said of the next two years without chaotic legislating by tweet. “My constituents are exhausted, and my colleagues are exhausted.”