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McConnell warns Republican senators to stay healthy or risk their lame-duck agenda

Sen. Chuck Grassley's Covid-19 diagnosis helped derail a Senate vote, raising concerns that the virus could keep the Senate from working next month.
Image: Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., returns to his office after he opened the Senate to work on appropriations bills at the Capitol on Monday.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent senators home Wednesday for Thanksgiving break one day early, in part because of the continued unchecked spread of Covid-19 among his members.

The decision came after Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, 87, tested positive Tuesday. His absence, along with Florida Sen. Rick Scott’s quarantine due to Covid-19 exposure, scuttled a vote on Judy Shelton’s controversial nomination to sit on the Federal Reserve Board.

The Republican Senate leader told members in a closed-door lunch Tuesday to “be careful” and make sure they take the necessary precautions against catching the virus, Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said.

McConnell's latest admonishment comes as Senate Republicans are trying to accomplish what they can in the final weeks of Donald Trump’s lame-duck presidency, stretched thin and getting little help from a president focused on fighting the results of the election.

There are a lot of items on McConnell's agenda in the final weeks of the year, including passing a government funding bill by Dec. 11 to avoid a shutdown, trying to find agreement on coronavirus aid and approving final appointments before President-elect Joe Biden takes over the White House in January.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of the party's leadership, said McConnell wants everyone to go home, take a break, stay healthy and then the caucus leadership will determine when they’ll have enough healthy and present senators to be at “fighting strength” again.

“I think that with what we want to get done, it’s going to make it tricky if we have folks who aren’t here,” Braun said. “It’s a fairly ambitious schedule and I think it’s important for everybody to be careful, like the leader said.”

When the Senate next returns, on Nov. 30, Mark Kelly, a Democrat, will be sworn in as the newest senator from Arizona, replacing Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and shrinking the Republican majority to just 52.

McConnell's pleas for lawmakers to stay healthy have a limit. While he's the leader of the chamber, he can't force any member or their office staff members to comply with mask mandates or other provisions.

And some rank-and-file Democratic senators and a bipartisan group of aides are growing more frustrated, concerned and confused with the lack of safety protocols on Capitol Hill, questioning both the Senate leadership and the attending physician, Dr. Brian Monahan, who has previously advised exposed senators against taking Covid-19 tests and quarantining. The Office of the Attending Physician has not replied to repeated requests for comment.

Aides say there are some efforts that could be taken to protect those in the Capitol, like contact tracing and publishing data about how many on the Hill have contracted the disease.

“It’s not safe here,” one Republican aide said, a sentiment echoed by numerous other aides of both parties. A Democratic aide said there is a sense of disappointment among Senate staffers who feel that the leadership and Office of the Attending Physician are not doing “the bare minimum,” like requiring mask wearing on the Senate floor.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he is concerned about safety for members and staff on the Hill.

“It would make sense if we had to be tested, certainly before we go out into the real world," Portman said. "This is a hub. We go out around the country. We should be tested when we come back.”

An unusually tense exchange happened on the Senate floor Monday night when mask politics caused an eruption between Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. Brown asked Sullivan, who was presiding over the Senate, to wear his mask while speaking. Sullivan shot back, telling Brown “I don’t need your instruction.”

There is still no mask mandate in the Senate chamber (there is one on the House floor) or in the House and the Senate office buildings. Signs around the Senate office buildings suggest mask usage.

Seven members of the House and one senator have tested positive for the virus this week alone. In total, at least three dozen lawmakers have contracted Covid-19 since the pandemic began, according to a tally by NBC News.

“At this point, you know, if we are seeing a rise in cases among members, I don't think it would be a bad idea to shut it down for a week,” a Republican House aide said.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said that the attending physician’s office has not changed its role during a pandemic.

“The office of attending physician has been mostly just the doctors for the members, which is important service, but it’s not the same as preventing the spread of the disease,” he said. “There has to be sort of central command that deals with data and disease prevention and eventually vaccination.”

Garrett Haake contributed.