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Democrats, GOP agree: Reopen U.S. Capitol to public

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told NBC News she hopes public tours can resume in the Capitol "pretty soon."
Image: Visitors tour the Capitol on May 18, 2017.
Visitors tour the Capitol on May 18, 2017.Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers in both parties are voicing frustration that the U.S. Capitol has remained shuttered to the public for nearly two years due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With Covid-19 cases plunging and spring breaks and middle school trips around the corner, there are growing calls on the Hill to reopen the majestic building — “the People’s House” — to public tours once again.

That now includes Democrats, who had been more aggressive in pushing for mask and vaccine mandates around the country and imposing restrictions in the Capitol but who now believe it’s time to bring constituents, school groups and other tourists back in the building.

“This place belongs to the people; they should be able to be here,” Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., told NBC News.

This place belongs to the people; they should be able to be here.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich.

“I’d like to see the Capitol open safely to tourists again,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., added. “A lot of my constituents are asking about visiting, and I think they should be able to visit again.”

Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., said there may be a need to keep some restrictions in place due to potential security threats related to last year's Jan. 6 attack. But she said she doesn’t believe Covid is the reason why the building should remain shut off to tourists. 

“I don’t think this is a Covid question. This is the People’s House; it’s a public place,” Wild said. “I’ve just started having constituents back in my office and it’s very pleasurable, and it’s important for the American people to be able to do that. It’s also, by the way, a great educational opportunity for school students.”

“From a health point of view, I think they should reopen,” she added.

In March 2020, as Covid cases spiked across the country and in the nation’s capital, the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms made the unprecedented decision to shut down the sprawling complex to everyone but lawmakers, top staffers, Capitol police, journalists and essential workers.

But there are signs the Capitol could be reopening in the near future, even as congressional leaders held a candlelight vigil this week marking the 900,000 lives lost to the pandemic in the United States.

Eyeing a return to normalcy, Democratic governors from Connecticut, New Jersey and Delaware said this week they would soon end mask mandates in schools, while New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, another Democrat, announced the end of her state’s strict indoor mask mandate.

Asked if it's time for public tours in the Capitol to resume, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said: “Pretty soon, I hope.”

For months, Republicans have railed at Pelosi for imposing safety and security measures during the pandemic and after the deadly attack on the Capitol by a mob of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters. They’ve sued Pelosi, unsuccessfully, to stop lawmakers from being able to vote remotely; blasted her mask mandate and the fines she’s imposed for those who ignore it in the chamber; and griped about having to go through metal detectors to get to the House floor.

“People all over the country are getting rid of the mask mandates, they’re opening stuff up, but it’s a political issue here,” Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, who served as White House physician to both Trump and former President Barack Obama, said as he removed his mask after leaving the floor.

“It’s Nancy Pelosi’s way of reminding all the Republican members here that she’s in charge, and I think we’re just done with it,” he said.

But the decision to restart public tours — and allow people to observe House and Senate votes from the visitors galleries above — doesn’t lie with Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Instead, it lies with the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, who say they take their guidance from the Capitol’s attending physician, Navy Rear Adm. Brian Monahan.

Monahan typically doesn’t comment to the media, making it hard to pin down exactly when tourists might be allowed back in the building. In early January, as the omicron variant was ravaging the nation, Monahan told lawmakers the Capitol testing center's seven-day positivity rate jumped to more than 13 percent, but it fell dramatically in the following weeks.

After two years of masks, lockdowns and other restrictions, Americans are suffering from pandemic fatigue — and so are lawmakers. Tensions have run high in the complex, with altercations between Republicans and Democrats happening almost every week. 

On Tuesday, things boiled over once again, when Congressional Black Caucus Chair Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, accused longtime Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., of poking her in the back and telling her to “kiss my a--” after an earlier run-in where she had told him to put his mask on. Rogers later apologized.

Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., the House Democrats’ former campaigns chief, in the 2020 cycle, said it’s clear that Americans are ready to move on from the pandemic. And once children under 5 can get vaccinated, like her toddler grandson, she doesn’t see any problem with reopening the Capitol.

“I think if you’re vaccinated and you have your booster, let’s live life,” Bustos said. “I’m not going to second guess the House doctor, but people are ready to get on with life.”