The Covid-19 threat is complicating Senate Democratic leaders’ ability to push through their agenda, where members’ absences threaten to jeopardize nominations and could put at risk a funding bill needed to keep the government running.
Since returning from August recess, three Democratic senators, Jacky Rosen (Nev.), Bob Menendez (N.J.) and Jon Ossoff (Ga.) have tested positive for the virus. So far this year, 19 Democrats have said they’ve tested positive compared to 11 Republicans. Most isolated for five days and returned to the Capitol, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis of voting data.
With the midterm election looming and their party facing political headwinds, Democrats are eager to show legislative progress — which could be thwarted if they can’t hold votes because of absent lawmakers. In the evenly divided chamber, which requires in-person voting, they need nearly perfect attendance to confirm nominees with a majority vote — with the vice president breaking a tie. They will also likely need most Democrats to muster the 60 votes need to pass a stopgap spending bill before the fiscal year begins in October or risk a government shutdown.
As has been the case since the outbreak of covid, attitudes toward dealing with the virus have varied by party, with some Republicans saying they avoid testing — and therefore positive results — while Democrats proceed with testing and pray that a positive case doesn’t threaten their fragile majority.
“You just hope that if God is going to send that challenge to a good Democrat he’ll also send it to a good Republican so our 50-50 ratio continues,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.
Some Republicans say they deliberately avoid testing, particularly if they are not showing any symptoms.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said in an interview he avoids places that require testing. “I think it’s time to move on,” Cramer said. “I just don’t want to participate or contribute to it where you have to take a test for the privilege of meeting. It sends a wrong message to my constituents who are over it and have been over it for a couple of years.”
Senate Democrats got a reminder this week how narrow their majority is when Republicans thwarted the confirmation of Arianna Freeman to the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit because of the absences of Sens. Tammy Duckworth(D-Ill.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.). Hassan was in New Hampshire for the primary election, and it was unclear why Duckworth was not present. Her office did not respond to requests for comment.
While House Democrats also disproportionately report testing positive, it’s less of a threat to their agenda because, unlike their Senate colleagues, they can vote by proxy, meaning if they’re unable to come to the Capitol they can still cast a vote. There have been 93 publicly reported Covid cases in the House this year, 72 of those from Democrats, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis.
The Office of the Attending Physician, the on-site physician in the Capitol, only suggests health care guidance on testing. Neither do the Centers for Disease Control or the Washington D.C. government impose testing mandates. That means it’s up to individual lawmakers to publicly report a positive diagnosis. Members and their staff have access to Covid testing at the Capitol at no cost through the attending physician’s office.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) found out she was positive from a test she was required to take to enter an event a couple months ago. At the time, she wasn’t experiencing any symptoms, she said. But the prior two weeks, Capito said she was sick with Covid but didn’t test.
“It’s always a concern and it should stay,” a worry, said Capito, who noted she’s fully vaccinated and plans to receive the new variant booster this week. At the same time, she said there’s been reluctance to impose a testing requirement.
Democrats say they plan to proceed with their agenda despite the Covid cases.
“We deal with it, we’re not going to stop what we’re doing,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said.
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