GOP lawmaker challenges McCarthy over 'bulls---' mask mandate enforcement

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Rep. Chip Roy confronted House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Thursday about a new Capitol Police bulletin that suggests congressional staffers and visitors could be arrested if they fail to heed the chamber's new mask mandate.

“This is bulls---. We need to lead,” Roy, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told McCarthy during a brief meeting of GOP lawmakers in a Capitol reception room, according to two sources familiar with the exchange.

McCarthy replied to a frustrated Roy that his plan is to win back the majority in 2022 and become speaker, the sources said. Their back-and-forth illustrates the mounting fury on the right about efforts by Capitol security officials to enforce mask-wearing rules amid the surge of Covid's Delta variant.

A Capitol Police guidance flier circulated Thursday morning by Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) states: "If a visitor or staff member fails to wear a mask after a request is made to do so, the visitor or staff shall be denied entry" to House office buildings or the House side of the Capitol.

"Any person who fails to either comply or leave the premises after being asked to do so would be subject to an arrest for Unlawful Entry,” the flier continues.

The guidance made clear that members who fail to comply with the mask mandate won’t be arrested, but would be “reported to the House Sergeant at Arms’ Office.”

Cammack tweeted the guidance and argued that it was an “abuse of power” by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Capitol Police to propose arresting staffers, even those who are vaccinated.

"The Speaker of the House does not control the U.S. Capitol Police," Pelosi deputy chief of staff Drew Hammill said. "We were unaware of the [mask-related] memo until it was reported in the press."

Freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) took it a step further, and offered to pay the bond of any staffer who is ultimately arrested for violating the mask guidance. The Capitol Police later walked back the guidance, writing in a statement that there is "no reason it should ever come to someone being arrested” and that anyone who does not follow the rule will be asked to “to wear a mask or leave the premises.”

The bulletin comes as Republicans are already hitting the Capitol physician for reimposing a mask mandate in the House when face coverings are not required across the building in the Senate. The mask requirement was put back in place as Covid cases rise in the Capitol, particularly in the House.

House Republicans met with the Attending Physician Brian Monahan behind closed doors on Wednesday, hoping to get answers about new guidance this week that said masks must be worn in inside spaces. They walked out with a handful of new criticisms and another health official at whom to direct their ire.

House Republicans pressed Monahan about basing his new mask mandate off information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that is in part unpublished or not fully vetted. In particular, they raised issue with the CDC citing a study in India “with vaccines not authorized for use in the United States” that noted “relatively high viral loads and larger cluster sizes associated with infections with Delta, regardless of vaccination status.” The CDC linked to it as a citation on its website when discussing Covid variants, but the study has yet to go through “peer review” according to the journal that published it.

The agency also acknowledged that the "interpretation of these data is challenging" because the variant of the virus and the local variation change with time.

Health experts and now Republicans are asking why the CDC didn't publish that unreleased data when health officials made new recommendations about wearing masks earlier this week. GOP members argue Monahan should've looked into that data when making health decisions for Congress.

Broadly, Republicans are arguing that the new mask mandate from Monahan and the Biden administration will increase vaccine hesitancy, just as Republicans are increasingly urging their constituents to get protected. Voters who identify as Republican are less likely to be vaccinated than Democrats.

Democrats and some health experts argue masks are necessary with new information that large amounts of the Covid Delta variant can harbor in both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

The heated Republican meeting with the attending physician was just the tip of the iceberg.

McCarthy and dozens of House Republicans stood on the Capitol steps Thursday attacking Pelosi and the Biden administration’s policies, hammering both the new mask mandate and the USCP bulletin. Members of the House Freedom Caucus also marched Thursday across from the Senate to the House to protest the rules varying in the Senate.

Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.

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