Hill leaders struggle with twin coronavirus challenges: Protect the nation — and themselves

By Heather Caygle and Kyle Cheney

Congressional leaders face an increasingly irreconcilable challenge: insulating the nation from the fallout of the coronavirus epidemic while protecting themselves from contracting the illness.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear Monday there are no plans to shut down the Capitol — or restrict public visitors — even as roughly a half-dozen lawmakers announced plans to self-quarantine and alarm spread across Capitol Hill and the country about the fallout from the virus.

A meeting between House chiefs of staff and Congress’ attending physician’s office grew heated Monday as staffers demanded answers on how to protect themselves and their bosses — many of them older members who are more susceptible to the virus — but left angry after receiving few concrete answers.

At the same time, Pelosi huddled with her committee chairmen Monday night as she and other senior Democrats draft a stimulus package they hope could keep the economy from bottoming out as the coronavirus continues to rattle markets globally. And she sought to reassure her members in a series of private leadership meetings Monday night, urging them to take practical precautions and focus on the legislative efforts to help families if the crisis worsens.

“At the present time, there is no reason for us not to continue with our vital legislative work in the Capitol,” Pelosi wrote in a letter she sent to Democrats Monday night and read aloud in one of their leadership meetings.

“Our concern is about the families and what the impact is on families — whether it’s the cost of testing or the rest,” she told reporters after the meeting.

Her committee chairs emerged late Monday from the meeting with Pelosi vowing to piece together a package of measures to protect workers affected by coronavirus as quickly as possible — perhaps putting it on the floor this week.

"I think it would have to be," said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chair of the Appropriations Committee. Lowey said she's not sure what an immediate package would include but said Democrats don't want to leave town without taking steps to protect hourly workers.

All House members will be briefed on the latest coronavirus developments on Thursday morning.

For congressional leaders, the crisis is manifold. They must work with President Donald Trump, who has publicly undermined the public safety messages of his own top health officials, to try to contain the economic panic already spreading throughout the country.

Lawmakers are tasked with implementing efforts to protect the hundreds of lawmakers and thousands of staffers and tourists who occupy the Capitol complex each day.

Increasingly, those goals are in tension, as lawmakers and aides wonder whether they’re safe patrolling a Capitol still packed with tourists. They also know, conversely, that a rush for the exits further could spook markets, which plummeted again on Monday.

Democrats are urging a series of initiatives they say would help families stay afloat if the coronavirus worsens, including guaranteed paid sick leave, food assistance programs for children who rely on school meals to eat, and free coronavirus testing for the population.

At the same time, Trump took to the airwaves Monday night to push his own economic stimulus ideas — including assistance for airline and cruise industries, a temporary payroll tax cut and paid leave for hourly workers.

House Democrats are moving toward passing an economic stimulus package in the coming days before leaving for a scheduled recess. It’s unclear whether Pelosi, Trump and GOP Republicans can come together on a bipartisan deal to juice the economy or if the House bill will be supported only by Democrats.

Meanwhile, fear continues to spread among staffers and lawmakers about when — not if — the coronavirus will hit Capitol Hill. Rumors were flying all day Monday about whether the House and Senate would leave early, stay in recess for longer than planned or if employees would be told to telework and for how long.

Several lawmakers — Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.) — are already self-quarantining themselves after learning of potential exposure at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland. Gaetz and Collins both had close contact with Trump in recent days.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), Trump's incoming chief of staff, announced late Monday he was self-quarantining until Wednesday after potential contact at CPAC. A spokesman for Meadows said he has tested negative for the virus.

And on Monday afternoon, Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) revealed she had come into contact last week with a person who has since tested positive for coronavirus. She said she'd be shuttering her Washington office for the week, even though "the risk of exposure to me and my staff is considered very low." Gaetz is also shuttering his D.C. office.

But Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who was informed he may have also come in contact with the coronavirus at CPAC, said he has no plans to self-quarantine.

“I think all of us should depend on the guidance that we get from health care professionals, not from me,” Pelosi said when asked about Gohmert's decision. “But I hope that he isn’t endangering his staff or other members of Congress or members of the press.”

Leaders in both parties are taking steps to reassure lawmakers both about the spread of the virus and the volatile financial markets.

Pelosi announced a trio of congressional officials — the attending physician, the sergeant at arms and the chief administrative officer — will be in attendance at a Democratic Party meeting Tuesday to address members’ questions.

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reiterated Monday on the Senate floor the need to listen to health experts.

“We have enormous expertise and tremendous capabilities,” McConnell said, adding that Congress has “made sure that our health experts and leaders have the funding they need.”

Across the Capitol, Senate Republicans will hear Tuesday from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow at their weekly lunch.

Meanwhile, members and aides continue to grapple with a growing list of questions, such as whether lawmakers should limit the large groups that often travel to the Capitol to lobby them directly, cancel upcoming town hall events or shift them to an online format, shutter district offices during next week’s recess, among other measures that could be considered to limit exposure.

Signs around the Capitol posted to office doors warned passersby that staffers would not engage in handshakes “out of an abundance of caution.” Further fueling alarm among staffers: There aren’t any testing kits on site in case a member or staffer is suspected of having coronavirus.

For his part, Trump spent Monday morning tweeting about “fake news,” the “deep state” and taunting Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other senior Democrats. Meanwhile, the stock market continued to tumble, the coronavirus death toll in the U.S. ticked up and Washington officials confirmed the city’s first cases.


While Trump has dispatched his top economic officials to address Republicans, the president is skipping an annual St. Patrick’s Day lunch Thursday, where he and Pelosi would have had facetime. Instead, Trump’s spokesman put out a statement over the weekend accusing Pelosi of tearing “the nation apart” with her rhetoric. And neither Trump nor Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the coronavirus response, have communicated with the speaker in recent days as the crisis worsens.

Lawmakers were told over the weekend to make preparations for staffers to work from home — including the purchases of additional laptops and cellphones if needed. And IT staffers were stationed in the Rayburn Cafeteria starting at noon on Monday to help aides ensure their laptops were up to date in preparation for possible telework.

There are unanswered questions about whether Congress could take steps to convene remotely amid a public health crisis, but top lawmakers seem loath to take that step — which was considered and rejected after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Pelosi shut down the idea during a private leadership meeting on Monday night, according to multiple attendees.

Meanwhile, Pelosi and her leadership team are working on a legislative package that could help contain any widespread economic turmoil as a result of the coronavirus. Pelosi noted in a letter to Democrats that “it is clear that further legislative action will quickly become necessary.”

But a fiscal stimulus could be a hard sell to some Republicans. When asked Monday about the prospect of an economic package like Democrats were proposing, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he didn't see a need for a stimulus.

"I think it’s too early to know," he said, adding, "I usually love tax cuts but I think it’s a little bit premature again."

The idea also came up during the Senate Republican leadership meeting Monday, but senators are waiting to hear more, according to attendees.

"We're waiting for them to come tomorrow," said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). "Personally I'm going to let them make their case before I decide on it,” he added of Kudlow and Mnuchin. “I think they're going to bring up a number of ideas and see how they go."

Whatever Congress passes, if anything, will build upon an $8.3 billion emergency funding package Congress passed last week, the first legislation to address the U.S. response to the spreading virus.

Marianne LeVine and Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.