Home speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate leader Mitch McConnell have refused an offer from the Trump administration to send rapid coronavirus tests for use in Congress as lawmakers prepare to return to the Capitol next week.
In a joint statement released on Saturday, leaders seemed to avoid being seen as a special treatment, at a time when capacity testing across the country was still far behind what it takes to spread the virus good to judge.
“Congress is grateful for the government’s generous offer to deploy rapid COVID-19 testing capabilities in Capitol Hill, but we respectfully decline the offer at this time,” the leaders wrote. “Our country’s testing capabilities continue to increase nationwide, and Congress wants to continue allocating resources to the primary care facilities where they can do best the fastest.”
The offer came because the Senate was expected to return to work in Washington on Monday. But capacity testing in the Capitol is far from sufficient to monitor cases between legislators and their staff – which is one reason why the House of Representatives has no intention of ending the hiatus.
On Thursday, Capitol attending physician Brian Monahan, reportedly told lawmakers the test capacity was so limited that senators could only be tested if they appeared to be ill. And according to Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Monahan told “House leadership earlier this week that he recommends not resuming their session” because of concerns about community testing and dissemination.
Despite these concerns, McConnell did not change his plan for the Senate to return to the Capitol on May 4. House leadership, on the other hand, followed Monahan’s advice; it is unclear when that body will return to Washington.
A number of senators expressed concern about McConnell’s plan, and apparently Twitter, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, responded Friday that the government sent Abbott coronavirus tests – which can produce results in just five minutes – to the Senate for use when it went back to work.
“Good news: As the Senate meets again to do important work for the American people during this public health crisis, we have now received a first request and are sending 3 Abbott point-of-care testing machines and 1,000 tests for their use, ” Azar tweeted.
On Saturday morning, Trump bragged about the offer, tweet that in Washington there was enormous testing capacity for CoronaVirus for the senators who returned to Capital [sic] Hill on Monday. Trump added, “Likewise the house, which should return, but not because of Crazy Nancy P.[elosi]. ‘
The tests offered by the Trump administration likely weren’t enough for the needs of the Senate
It is unclear how much use the 1000 tests would have been. There are 100 senators, 435 members of the House, and there are in both chambers tens of thousands of employees, many of whom travel across the country through risk areas such as airports to travel to Washington. So 1,000 extra tests don’t seem to be a game changer to ensure that everyone working in the Capitol is free from coronavirus.
Instead, Congress would need enough tests to introduce the kind of testing regime used in the White House. Trump and vice president Mike Pence are said to be tested more often than once a week, and a number of senior employees such as the White House Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, are tested weekly. Anyone who comes into regular contact with Trump will also be tested.
Good tests in the Senate are imperative to minimize the chances of community spread, as Vox’s Li Zhou explained Friday, as lawmakers are at particular risk for Covid-19:
The Capitol’s limited testing capacity is worrying in itself: many senators are over 65 and fall within the reach of individuals who are more likely to experience severe coronavirus symptoms. And while they are in the Capitol, their work inherently brings them and staff together in close contact.
Prior to leaving for the break, senators were spotted in tight groups on the floor during one stimulus voices. And when Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) tested positive for Covid-19, several of his colleagues, including Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) isolate themselves out of concern about their exposure.
McConnell and Pelosi may have turned down tests that may have made the hill a little safer, but their verdict reflects common sense politically: if it’s still remarkably difficult to get tested across the country, it might not be a great look to have a special set of tests as a favor from the White House.