WASHINGTON — The House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, says masks should no longer be required in the chamber. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office offered a response: Get your members vaccinated against Covid-19 first.
The fight over masks in the halls of the House is a microcosm of the debate going on across America after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear face coverings, even in most indoor settings.
But Pelosi has refused to change the rules for the House chamber, even as the CDC guidance has led to a shedding of masks in the Senate and other federal agencies have told vaccinated staffers that face coverings are no longer required. Members of Congress were among the first Americans with access to the vaccines, but not all of them have been vaccinated.
Brian Monahan, Congress's attending physician, said Wednesday that the House rules were "entirely consistent" with CDC guidance. He said "precautions are necessary given the substantial number of partially vaccinated, unvaccinated, and vaccine-indeterminate individuals" in order to to "reduce the risk of coronavirus outbreak."
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, D-Calif., called McCarthy's move "a sad stunt" to distract from the chamber's vote on a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump.
"If Minority Leader McCarthy wants to be maskless on the Floor of the House of Representatives, he should get to work vaccinating his Members," Hammill said.
The House voted 218-210 to kill McCarthy's push.
McCarthy's resolution came one day after a group of Republicans staged a protest on the House floor, violating the rule by going maskless. The group included Brian Mast of Florida and far-right members like Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Louie Gohmert of Texas.
"We’ve had enough. We are refusing to wear our masks on the floor during this vote in spite of Pelosi’s threat to take $500 from each of us. Her rule is not based on science,” Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who organized the protest, tweeted.
Some were cited for a first offense — a warning — while others were fined $500 for a second offense. A third offense, and additional offenses beyond that, would each lead to a $2,500 fine.
"Best $500 I ever spent," Mast said of his fine after leaving the chamber.
The group took a photo on the steps of the Capitol together immediately following House votes.
A number of the lawmakers, including Greene, declined to say whether they have received a Covid-19 vaccination, when asked by NBC News. CDC guidance says it's only safe for people who have received their final shot and allowed two weeks to lapse to congregate without a mask.
Mask-wearing has reduced in the hallways of Capitol Hill since the updated CDC guidance released last week, but the rules haven't yet changed in the House chamber, where prior to the pandemic hundreds of members packed into a crowded space during votes. There is no public record of which lawmakers have been vaccinated.