Federal lawmakers spar over mask-wearing policy in Capitol building

Politics

WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — Some observers said it was the most tense exchange they’d seen on the floor of the U.S. Senate in decades. 

“I’d start by asking the presiding officer to please wear a mask, as he speaks and people are below him. I can’t tell you what to do, but…” Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, said as he began a floor speech.

Brown was speaking to Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, who was presiding over the floor. Sullivan shot back at Brown. 

“I don’t wear a mask when I’m speaking, like most senators,” said Sullivan. 

“Well most senators…” Brown interjected before Sullivan finished his point. 

“So, I don’t need your instruction,” said Sullivan. 

“I know you don’t need my instruction, but there clearly isn’t much interest in this body in public health,” said Brown. “We have a president who hasn’t shown up at the coronavirus task force meeting in months. We have a majority leader that calls us back here to vote on an unqualified nominee. And at the same time, to vote for judge after judge after judge, exposing all the people who can’t say anything, I understand, the people in front of you and the presiding officer and expose all the staff here.”

The exchange was emblematic of a larger debate playing out in cities and towns across the country, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise and the public experiences quarantine fatigue. The debate occurred as three senators were in quarantine, including Sen. Chuck Grassley, who had just tested positive for COVID-19

After the exchange, Brown told NewsNation it was important to speak out. 

“I did this time because the coronavirus is getting worse. Mitch McConnell has called all the senators back, where all the staff has to come down to the senate floor, and be exposed,” said Brown. He said he blames Republicans for politicizing mask-wearing and making the Senate itself unsafe.

So far, eight senators have tested positive for COVID-19. All eight are Republican.

“It is a sad and sorry statement that this has become political issue,” said Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia. Many Democrats say masks should be mandated in the Capitol. Warner said the fact that there’s a mask debate at all,  likely contributes to rising case numbers.

“People say somehow it’s not going to affect them, or they can ignore the doctors and scientists, that is the ultimate sign of disrespect,” Warner said.

Republican Congressman Rob Wittman said his party doesn’t oppose masks. Rather, he said they oppose a mandate to wear them. 

“It should be up to each individual member of Congress,” Wittman said. “I don’t think we should be at a point where we have to be told what to do … We know clearly what each of us can do to protect ourselves and others.”

“We’re following guidelines laid out by the attending physician at the Capitol,” said Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy from Louisiana.

He said if senators remove their masks while speaking on the Senate floor, the science is still on their side. 

“If you’re 6 feet apart in a well-ventilated chamber, which has a high ceiling, the Centers for Disease Control would say your risk of spreading to others is minimal,” said Cassidy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends physically distancing yourself by at least 6 feet from other people who are not from your household in both indoor and outdoor spaces.

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