Pelosi rejects calls to shutter Capitol: 'We are the captains of this ship'
Washington, DC, March 10, 2020 | The Hill
With the Capitol consumed by anxiety over the coronavirus, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) rose in a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday and told his Democratic colleagues they should leave Washington and return home to their districts, where they would be safer.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) immediately quashed the idea, according to multiple sources in the room.
“We are the captains of the ship. We are the last to leave,” she told her caucus, borrowing a line uttered moments earlier by Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), a Navy veteran.
The California Democrat and her leadership team have been feeling pressure from Nadler and others to take steps to avert a coronavirus outbreak in the Capitol, where two-thirds of senators are older than 60 and the average age of House members is 57.6 years.
The oldest members of both chambers — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) — both turn 87 in June. Pelosi is 79, while Nadler is 72 years old. And several, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), are battling cancer.
Nadler’s motives for district-based work are largely personal: His wife is sick and undergoing chemotherapy, sparking concerns that his frequent travel poses a threat to her well-being.
The advanced age of many lawmakers is worrisome because older adults, especially those with existing medical conditions, are the most vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urged Americans older than 60 to avoid crowds — advice that’s virtually impossible for members of Congress to follow. At least 27 people have died from the virus in the United States.
The Pelosi-Nadler exchange came after House Democrats were briefed behind closed doors Tuesday morning by the congressional physician’s office, the Capitol Police and the head of the House Administration Committee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), on steps for diminishing the coronavirus threat.
As part of that effort, the Capitol physician has been giving lawmakers a crash-course in “social distancing,” a mode of behavior that encourages members to avoid all physical contact, including handshakes, and keep a minimum of six feet between themselves and others.
His preferred greeting, the physician joked, is Mr. Spock’s Vulcan salute from Star Trek — no contact required.
The House Administration Committee, meanwhile, has purchased 1,500 new laptop computers for distribution to member offices, a move designed to empower more staff to work from home without violating security guidelines. More laptops are on the way.
Yet for all the briefings and expert advice, there remains an overwhelming sense of uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus — both from the public health officials seeking to prevent its spread and the Capitol Hill lawmakers hoping to address the fallout without inciting panic outside the Beltway.
“It’s a fluid situation,” said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), a physician and former chief medical officer for Sacramento County, where schools have shut down over coronavirus fears.
A key reason Democrats say they must maintain the congressional schedule is to vote on coronavirus-related legislation.
“We're keeping our schedule,” said Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.), the head of the Democrats’ messaging arm. “We think it's very important to stay here and do our work.”
But no one could say for sure when the next round of legislation is coming.
"As soon as possible,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), head of the House Appropriations Committee.
There's been some disagreement about who has the ultimate authority to make the decision to close the Capitol. Pelosi said Monday that it was up to the Capitol physician and Capitol Police.
Asked by The Hill if she would extend next week’s spring recess, Pelosi replied: “That’s not planned.”
Endangered Democrats facing tough reelections this fall are also feeling the heat to show their constituents back home that they are working in Washington to help workers harmed by the coronavirus, including hourly workers employed by hotels, restaurants and retail stores whose roles don't allow them to work from home.
There are “lots of conversations about whether we should go home or stay here,” freshman Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who flipped a GOP-held seat in the 2018 midterms, said as he left the meeting. “Many of us, myself included, feel we should be here, providing oversight to this administration and policy that's going to help protect the nation.”
But asked if he felt safe working in the Capitol complex, Phillips replied: “Nobody should feel safe. We can just make our best effort to protect ourselves and those with whom we work and with whom we interact.
“Safety is relative in an epidemic,” he said.