Congressional leaders are digging in on their refusal to mandate regular coronavirus testing for lawmakers, despite growing calls to do so from both inside and outside the Capitol.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected an offer from the administration to provide rapid tests to lawmakers in early May — citing concerns about logistics as well as the appearance of giving lawmakers preferential treatment.
And they haven’t changed their minds, even as members of the Capitol workforce erupted with anger this week over the lack of available testing after news that Rep. Louie Gohmert, a hard-line Republican who brags about refusing to don a mask at the Capitol, tested positive for coronavirus.
“It’s not up to Sen. McConnell and me. As far as I’m concerned, it’s up to the Capitol physician,” Pelosi told reporters on Friday. “There are about 20,000 people who make the Capitol run. And the Capitol physician has not said yet that he thinks we should be tested. But it’s not just us, it’s others as well.”
Similarly, McConnell’s office isn’t planning to change its approach to testing in the Capitol, according to a spokesperson for his office.
Pelosi said it wouldn’t make sense to test just the 535 members of Congress when there are thousands of others including congressional aides, Capitol police officers, maintenance men and women and construction workers who inhabit the sprawling Capitol complex each day.
In addition, the California Democrat questioned the optics of lawmakers receiving regular tests while many Americans across the country have limited access to testing, often waiting in line for hours and then waiting days or weeks to receive their results.
“We would probably have to do thousands of people, some would say every day, some would say every week,” Pelosi said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for members of the Congress to say, ‘We should have it, but maybe not necessarily the people who work here’ at the expense of others.”
Pelosi and McConnell’s resistance hasn’t stopped others from seizing on the issue, saying it’s a no-brainer that lawmakers — most of whom fly in from across the country, many coming from areas where the coronavirus is surging — should be tested.
Gohmert was asymptomatic and was tested only because he was scheduled to fly with President Donald Trump to his home state of Texas earlier this week. The lawmaker, one of a dozen GOP members who openly flout the Capitol’s mask recommendations, potentially could have unknowingly infected other lawmakers and staffers had he not been tested. Some lawmakers who had recently been in close contact with Gohmert got tested afterward, including Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), who received negative results after being tested at the Capitol.
Gohmert is the ninth member of Congress to test positive for coronavirus in addition to at least 86 members of the Capitol workforce and an unknown number of congressional staffers, since reporting is voluntary and staffer data arenn’t tracked in a central database. At least one staffer, a longtime member of GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan’s Florida district office, has died because of the virus.
“There’s more than 50 million tests that have already happened in America. The one place it’s not happening is in Congress,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “I can’t understand why the speaker continues to refuse.”
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who has been on the Hill nearly every day negotiating a coronavirus relief bill, has also chimed in, arguing it’s clear that Congress should be testing lawmakers.
“I think we ought to have testing for members of Congress and their staff and reporters, if they’re going to be in close proximity,” Meadows told reporters Thursday night, reiterating the administration’s offer to provide rapid tests.
“I do think that if you’re looking at the continuity of government, that most Americans would understand why perhaps you would test members of Congress and their staff on a more regular basis,” he added.
But Democratic aides contend Republicans are not sincere in their calls to implement testing and blaming Democrats for their resistance. The logistics of testing hundreds, if not thousands of people daily, is still a significant hurdle because of the limited number of machines offered by the administration.
In addition, the validity of the rapid tests offered by the administration has repeatedly been questioned by science and health experts because of their problematic tendency to provide inaccurate results.
Privately, Democrats point to a recent change in mask protocols by Pelosi as the most effective way to prevent the spread of coronavirus around the Capitol. Earlier this week, after Gohmert tested positive, Pelosi mandated that masks be worn by lawmakers and staff on and around the House chamber and in House offices.
Previously, Pelosi had issued a rule requiring lawmakers to wear masks when attending committee hearings in person, a protocol that some Republicans have made a show of disobeying only to receive no punishment. But those requirements will be much more strictly enforced from now on, according to multiple Democratic aides who discussed the issue.
Still, the question of whether lawmakers and other staffers should be regularly tested is one that continues to roil Capitol Hill, particularly after some GOP aides anonymously complained about being discouraged from wearing masks in their offices.
There is no public data available about the number of lawmakers who have been tested at the Capitol, but in at least some cases, the results have been speedy.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said she decided to take a test after feeling unwell recently and received the results back in just a few hours; her test came back negative.
But Jayapal said a broad testing mandate in Congress could send the wrong message to the American public, with thousands still struggling to get access to tests.
“You shouldn’t have to be a member of Congress to get tested,” Jayapal said in an interview Friday. “For a lot of Americans, that’s not possible. And that’s the rub. If we were to say we want mandatory testing for everybody, when the rest of America can’t get testing, it feels extremely hypocritical.”
Other Democrats acknowledge the issue is complicated, noting concerns about the optics. But several said they would support testing requirements — perhaps after members travel back and forth to their districts — if there were enough materials available.
“We’re in such close proximity to other members,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), who said he’d be in favor of testing members if tests were available. “After what happened with Louie Gohmert and so many others, better safe than sorry.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.