Sen. Rand Paul on Sunday announced he has tested positive for the novel coronavirus, becoming the first senator and third member of Congress known to have contracted the virus.
And Senate GOP leaders will now be short five Republicans during a key procedural vote on a massive economic rescue package to deal with the coronavirus crisis, in part due to Paul’s infection.
Paul — who has been working from the Capitol in recent days — said he was tested out of caution “due to his extensive travel and events” and is not showing symptoms of the highly infectious virus. Later, his staff said that Paul had attended an event where two people tested positive, though the senator did not recall specific interactions with either of them.
Paul’s infection quickly reverberated throughout the Senate, where lawmakers were surprised by his diagnosis as they pushed ahead with a massive package to rescue the economy from the outbreak. The Kentucky senator had been interacting with his colleagues just days prior, voting on the floor, sitting in meetings and speaking to reporters in hallways.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) are now self-quarantining after close interactions with Paul. Lee’s office said Sunday that the Capitol’s attending physician directed him to stay isolated for 14 days, a recommendation Romney also received. That means Lee and Romney, along with Paul, cannot vote on any legislation on the floor this week as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attempts to keep his conference together on the economic rescue bill.
Meanwhile, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Col.) is also self-quarantining in Washington after potential exposure earlier this month, as is Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).
But the news of Paul’s infection does not appear to have changed the calculation for Senate GOP leaders, whose members remain in Washington for a rare weekend session — at least until the stimulus package is complete.
“I don’t believe it changes our posture,” Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters on Sunday when asked whether the Senate would change its operations. “I think individual members will know if they’ve had much contact with him in the last week or not.”
“The crisis that we’re facing requires that we be here,” added Senate Banking Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho.) “I can’t say that Congress should quit operating. The people of America need Congress to be working on this crisis response.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said he believes more senators “are being more careful than we were 12 hours ago” but added that they have no choice but to stay in Washington.
“I feel a little bit like we are first responders. There’s an emergency, and there’s no one else but the United States Senate that’s going to pass this bill and it has to be passed,” Cramer told reporters.
Several senators, including Susan Collins (R-Maine), however, said the chamber should take an extended leave from the Capitol after clearing the latest relief package.
“I believe that our first obligation is to finish our work. After that, I think it would be wise to accelerate the break that was scheduled for April,” Collins told reporters.
Paul expects to return to the Senate after isolating himself, an aide to the senator said. The staffer added that Paul’s office in Washington has been working remotely for 10 days, so “virtually no staff” has had physical contact with him.
Health officials have said the virus is spread largely among people who are showing symptoms of the disease. But people who have the disease who aren’t symptomatic — like Paul — can still pass it to others.
Privately, some senators have become very concerned over Paul’s diagnosis. Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran said in a GOP lunch Sunday that Paul was at the gym this morning, swimming in the pool.
Paul is one of a small group of lawmakers to have tested positive for the disease, in addition to Reps. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). Both members developed symptoms last weekend, after being in the Capitol as recently as last Saturday morning.
Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill fear the virus will spread within their ranks, as the Senate remains in the building to draft and pass much-needed economic recovery legislation. The House, whose members have been working from their districts for the past week, is expected to return sometime this week to vote on the Senate’s “Phase 3” package.
Many members of the House are privately worried about returning to Washington, not just because it would require hundreds of people to get on airplanes but because it could expose them to the virus in the sprawling Capitol complex. Several anxious lawmakers of both parties have called for the House to consider voting remotely, though it would be one of the biggest procedural changes to Congress in history.
The virus has likely been inside the Capitol for weeks: Several staffers in the House and Senate have tested positive, in addition to the three members. And many more lawmakers and staffers have been told by the House physician’s office of possible exposure at the Capitol, with each of those individuals asked to self-quarantine in their homes.
Many parts of the Capitol have ceased regular operations: Offices are largely teleworking, visitor access is restricted, and tours are canceled.
Still, there are hundreds of people in the building each day, including Capitol police, food preparation workers and cleaning staff — not including the 100 senators, dozens of staff and reporters. And there is no universal screening for people entering the building.
The concerns of infection are heightened in the Senate, where the average age of a senator is nearly 63.
“Senators, as a rule, tend to be a little bit older. So senators are at an increased risk for calculations,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a doctor, told reporters Sunday.
Still, Cassidy largely downplayed the risks at the Capitol, noting that Paul took the appropriate measures to immediately quarantine himself, and he pointed out that the Senate has far lower risk than health care facilities.
“But, by the way, not as high risk as a nursing home. So we’ve got to be concerned about everybody right now,” he said. “We have to put this in perspective.”
Jake Sherman and Marianne Levine contributed to this report.
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