Covid emerges as a complication for a Democratic economic deal

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In recent months, members of Congress who have publicly reported coronavirus cases have been overwhelmingly Democrats — including the party’s two top leaders on Capitol Hill — posing a significant and ironic problem for the majority party.

By testing more frequently than their fellow Republicans, Democrats face the possibility that their strict adherence to public health protocols will backfire as they pursue the passage of important domestic policy legislation through the Senate 50- 50 in the coming weeks.

The stakes were thrown into sharp relief after Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) reported positive tests, rendering them unable to vote this week . While their absence did not affect this week’s Senate agenda and both senators continued to work while in isolation, any future Democratic absence could upend plans to pass the line’s economic package. of the party that is currently being negotiated between Schumer, Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.) and other Democrats.

Lawmakers from both parties agree that Democrats appear to be victims of their own diligence, testing more frequently than Republicans and releasing their results more regularly.

“We need all Democrats,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who added that he doubted any real partisan disparity in virus incidence: “I would venture to suggest that the infection rates are exactly the same between Democrats. and Republicans. One group discloses publicly, and one group doesn’t – that’s my hunch.

“Either they don’t tell us or they just don’t get tested,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

According to GovTrack.us, a nonpartisan data clearinghouse that tracks members’ coronavirus disclosures, 70 members of Congress have publicly reported positive tests and self-isolated since early March when the omicron wave subsided.

Only six of those 70 lawmakers — about 9% — are Republicans.

Several Republican lawmakers polled this week did not dispute Kaine’s theory, with nearly all admitting that Democrats are likely testing more frequently for various reasons.

“We probably aren’t reporting our results or offering as many tests,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who tested positive in January at the height of the omicron wave.

Some Republicans, in fact, have suggested that Democrats are simply testing too much.

“We are now in an endemic, not a pandemic, and I guess you can carry on like that [testing] protocol as far into the future as you want,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). But he added that “sometimes your policies can get really inconvenient when they don’t make sense.”

Others were downright glib: Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a doctor, joked that the Democrats’ dilemma was a matter of “karma.”

“When you try to submit bad bills, you run into attendance issues,” he said.

In the House, positive tests have little political consequence. In the early months of the pandemic, the chamber instituted proxy voting, which allows a member to designate a colleague to vote on their behalf. In April, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) announced that she had tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Senate, however, does not allow proxy voting, and margins are tighter – Vice President Harris’ decisive vote is all that guarantees a majority for Democrats in a Senate that has been evenly split between parties since January. 2021.

The chamber had full attendance for only a handful of votes this year. While GOP absences have frequently allowed Democrats to shift some controversial measures without full participation — like Tuesday’s confirmation of former federal prosecutor Steve Dettelbach as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, fire and explosives – some other key votes were delayed or dropped due to the Democratic Party. absences.

As the BA.5 variant spreads, the risk of reinfection with the coronavirus increases

But possible consideration of a party-line economic package — a modified relaunch of the Build Back Better domestic policy bill that foundered last year due to Democratic infighting — is shaping up to be a deal breaker. breathtaking, even without the threat of a novel coronavirus variant. on the Capitol.

Under Senate rules, moving the package through the chamber wouldn’t just be a matter of a few votes, it would be a week-long process of negotiation culminating in a “vote-a-rama,” a marathon series of votes. amendment likely to extend overnight into the next morning.

There are already non-covid absences that have given Democrats reason to worry: Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) had hip replacement surgery last month and has yet to returned to vote, and two other Democratic senators, Ben Ray Luján (NM) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.), suffered minor strokes that caused them to miss votes earlier this year.

A key factor in the disparity in testing between the two parties: Although Congress itself does not have a set testing protocol, the White House does, and many lawmakers have reported positive tests after being selected for meetings with President Biden or Harris. By and large, these meetings tend to involve congressional Democrats, not Republicans.

Schumer and Blumenthal, for example, reported their positive tests this week just before a Monday event on the South Lawn commemorating the recent passage of bipartisan gun violence legislation. On Tuesday, Biden hosted the annual congressional picnic — an event that drew a largely but not exclusively Democratic crowd.

For Republicans, meanwhile, testing practices appear to be more uneven and largely dependent on the whims and schedules of individual lawmakers. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the last Republican lawmaker to reveal a positive test, said he took a test to attend an event.

“I test when I’m asked to test,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (RS.D.). “I wouldn’t be afraid to test if I had any symptoms. But I don’t have any symptoms, I’m not doing everything possible to test.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (RN.D.) said he had not taken a coronavirus test since January 2021, when Biden’s inauguration was due to be attended. He said he hadn’t had any symptoms since the start of the pandemic and “I’ve never taken a test out of curiosity”.

Cramer said he has declined invitations to the White House since then, in part because of testing and masking requirements.

“The problem with testing positive at the White House is that other people know you tested positive instead of doing it in your own room,” he said, explaining why he thought Democrats were reporting more cases.

Earlier in the pandemic, Democrats and Republicans could be discerned simply by their mask-wearing habits, but things are less clear now.

On Capitol Hill this week, the vast majority of senators went maskless, though a handful of Democrats still wear them faithfully. Lines at the Senate testing center, which often featured hour-long waits during covid waves, are now largely non-existent.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who is responsible for mustering Democratic votes as majority whip, explained the partisan disparity by pointing to frequent visits by Democrats to the White House. But he balked when asked if Democrats would be wise to take more precautions — and perhaps stop visiting the White House — if economic talks progress.

But other senators and aides are quietly beginning to question whether more precautions are warranted, given the health and political stakes. Some have discussed encouraging more mask-wearing and replacing Zoom meetings with in-person gatherings.

“The whole country depends on us, so we need to stay healthy,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “As we get closer to the start time, we have to be more and more careful.”

That report was updated Thursday with four additional congressional cases reported this week — three Democrats and one Republican.

Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.

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