November 26, 2020

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Democrats abandon indoor Capitol meal for new House members after photo raises eyebrows

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday that lawmakers would continue to vote long-distance, citing concerns about the coronavirus — but newly elected members were still set to eat together indoors.

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Democrats’ plans for a meal at a stately hall in the Capitol building raised eyebrows Friday after a journalist’s tweet, though Pelosi insisted the arrangement would be safe and “very spaced.” Earlier in the day — with infections and hospitalizations surging nationwide — Pelosi had emphasized that a vaccine breakthrough should give people “hope” but urged people to “listen to science” and heed guidance including “isolation” and “separation.”

By evening, the new members event was changed to grab-and-go. The House’s newest legislators were already in the capital for an orientation like no other, filled with face masks and new precautions.

“Our office strictly follows the guidance of the Office of Attending Physician, including for this dinner,” tweeted Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi. “To be a further model for the nation, this event has been modified to allow Members-elect to pick up their meals to go in a socially-distanced manner.”

Hammill emphasized later, as members picked up boxed meals and left, that there would be “no group dinner.” Republicans will also have a new members dinner, but House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R) office did not immediately respond to inquiries about their plans.

Democratic leaders have been more cautious than Republicans as the pandemic transforms congressional operations. In a historic shift, the Democrat-dominated House has been voting remotely, while the GOP-dominated Senate continued with in-person business.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) attended confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett less than two weeks after testing positive for the coronavirus, saying he was cleared by the Capitol doctor. Lee was among those mingling at a largely maskless Rose Garden ceremony — denounced as a coronavirus “superspreader” event — where President Trump, who later fell ill along with a slew of attendees, announced Barrett’s nomination.

Democratic politicians have also come under scrutiny for traveling and socializing while emphasizing the seriousness of the pandemic. Just this week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) told the San Francisco Chronicle he had erred in attending a birthday party for an adviser, and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser defended her weekend travel to Delaware — a state with higher coronavirus risk — to celebrate Joe Biden’s presidential win. Pelosi was accused of hypocrisy this fall when video captured her walking through a salon with a mask around her neck, as San Francisco hairdressers remained under orders to do their work outside.

Asked earlier Friday if the dinner plans were safe given the coronavirus, Pelosi said that Congress’s attending physician had given permission and emphasized that there would be ventilation. But the event still drew attention.

“This strikes me as a bad idea, a dangerous idea,” tweeted journalist Dan Rather. “It’s also exactly the wrong message to send to America as the pandemic spikes.”

In a testament to continued concerns about the virus, Pelosi told colleagues on Friday that because a “public health emergency is in effect, she was extending remote voting until the end of the year.

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