‘We’re all anxious’: The Senate returns amid the pandemic

The Senate is a social institution by nature, a group of 100 who spend hours each month milling around on the Senate floor during votes. Monday evenings are known as a “bed check” vote when leaders in both parties can take the temperature of their members on the pressing issues of the day during a non-controversial roll call.

But the coronavirus changed all that. Sure, the vote to confirm a new inspector general of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was 87-0. But most senators voted with speed on Monday evening, casting their vote and then quickly walking off the floor without the usual back-patting and breeze-shooting.

A handful of senators stopped to chat. Durbin and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) talked about books and Washington D.C.’s fiscal plight from about 10 feet apart. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) briefly gathered to make small talk.

“How ‘bout these Zooms?” Manchin said, referring to how politicians meet their constituents these days. “Isn’t that something?”

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) pulled down her mask briefly to identify herself to Senate staff tallying the vote; Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) pointed at her purple hair.

Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) walked onto the floor maskless (Paul tested positive for coronavirus in March).

“I wear a mask when I go into grocery stores, that type of thing. I think around here we probably won’t have to,” Johnson said. “They’re not pleasant to wear, are they?”

But most senators, from McConnell on down, were wearing them anyway. Nearly every reporter and staffer did too. Their muffled words ping-ponged around the empty Capitol eerily every few minutes. Mostly, the building was silent.

There were new plexiglass shields installed around the building, too, to try and prevent the spread of the virus and accommodate some business as usual. Boxes of masks were readily available as was hand sanitizer. And just like a Target or grocery store, there were visual cues reminding people where to stand to practice social distancing.

“It’s a different experience, for sure. But hopefully we’ll get used to it,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).

And even in this new, strange world on Capitol Hill there were some echoes of the past. As soon as the Senate came in after its six-week hiatus, McConnell came to the floor to castigate Democratic “obstruction” of Trump’s nominees; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) hit back that if the Senate is going to be in it should be to focus on fighting the coronavirus.

It was a partisan exchange that would have felt normal before anyone knew about the coronavirus. But after it ended, Schumer put on his mask and spoke to a handful of reporters who kept their distance as photographers loudly clicked their cameras at the chatty minority leader.

Asked how he was feeling, Schumer paused for a moment: “I’m doing my best. I’ve got to go about my job.”

“It’s important for the Senate to demonstrate that we can function. And we’re going to be guided by good advice,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who said he’d been tested for the virus twice when visiting the White House. “I’ve been under house arrest in my own home for six weeks, I was glad to get out.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) retorted: “I don’t think it’s safe for anybody right now, and I think that we’re not setting a very good example.”

Hundreds of House members streamed into the Capitol last month to pass the latest coronavirus aid bill but they left town immediately after and dropped plans to return this week. The Senate forged ahead, even as the number of coronavirus cases rise in the region

Meanwhile, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and McConnell are refusing President Donald Trump’s offer for rapid coronavirus testing, a move seemingly intended to thwart criticism that the elite institution is receiving special treatment while much of the public lacks access to tests.

Schumer said he agreed with the decision. But not all of his members did.

“It’d be nice to have a test to find out if I’m going to infect my asthmatic son,” Tester said. “That means we don’t have enough tests — regardless of what the president says.”

But there will be no rapid tests for now, so senators did their best to cope with the new conditions. Many rely on staffers to drive them to and from votes and other political events, though on Monday some drove themselves.

As they exited the building, they stopped for reporters while a balmy breeze drifted through the nation’s capital. They were back at work voting on nominees just like usual — except everything felt different.

“I think we’re all anxious,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala), who wore a University of Alabama-themed mask. “Just about everybody in the world has the same feeling we do. We want to survive.”

Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.

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