House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have declined an offer from the Trump administration to be sent rapid coronavirus tests for congressional use as lawmakers prepare to return to the Capitol next week.
In a joint statement, released Saturday, the leaders appeared to be trying to avoid being seen as accepting special treatment, at a moment when testing capacity across the country is still far behind what’s needed to properly assess the spread of the virus.
“Congress is grateful for the Administration’s generous offer to deploy rapid COVID-19 testing capabilities to Capitol Hill, but we respectfully decline the offer at this time,” the leaders wrote. “Our country’s testing capacities are continuing to scale up nationwide, and Congress wants to keep directing resources to the front-line facilities where they can do the most good the most quickly.”
The offer came as the Senate is expected to get back to work in Washington on Monday. But testing capacity at the Capitol is far from adequate for monitoring cases among lawmakers and their staff — which is one reason why the House of Representatives does not plan to end its recess.
On Thursday, the Capitol’s attending physician, Brian Monahan, reportedly told lawmakers testing capacity was so limited that senators could only get tested if they appeared to be sick. And according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Monahan told “House leadership that he recommends against resuming their session” earlier in the week due to concerns over testing and community spread.
Despite these concerns, McConnell didn’t alter his plan for the Senate to return to the Capitol on May 4. House leadership, on the other hand, heeded Monahan’s advice; it is unclear when that body will return to Washington.
A number of senators raised their concerns with McConnell’s plan, and seemingly in response, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar tweeted Friday that the administration was sending Abbott coronavirus tests — which can provide results in as few as five minutes — for the Senate to use as it got back to work.
“Good news: as the Senate reconvenes to do important work for the American people during this public health crisis, we have now received an initial request and are sending 3 Abbott point of care testing machines and 1,000 tests for their use,” Azar tweeted.
Saturday morning, Trump boasted about the offer, tweeting that there was “tremendous CoronaVirus testing capacity in Washington for the Senators returning to Capital [sic] Hill on Monday.” Trump added, “Likewise the House, which should return but isn’t because of Crazy Nancy P[elosi].”
The tests the Trump administration offered likely wouldn’t have been sufficient for the Senate’s needs
It’s unclear how much use the 1,000 tests would have been. There are 100 senators, 435 members of the House, and across both chambers, there are tens of thousands of staff members, many of whom would be traveling across the country through high-risk areas like airports to get to Washington. So an extra 1,000 tests doesn’t seem to be a game-changer in terms of helping ensure that everyone working in the Capitol is free of coronavirus.
Instead, Congress would need enough tests to institute the sort of testing regime used in the White House. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are reportedly tested more frequently than once a week, and a number of senior staff members like White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows are tested weekly. Anyone who comes into regular contact with Trump also gets tested.
Good testing in the Senate is imperative to minimize the chances of community spread, as Vox’s Li Zhou explained on Friday, because lawmakers are at particular risk for Covid-19:
The Capitol’s limited testing capacity is concerning in itself: Many senators are over the age of 65 and within the range of individuals who are more likely to experience severe coronavirus symptoms. And while in the Capitol, their work inherently brings them, and staffers, into close contact with one another.
Prior to departing for recess, senators were spotted in tight groups on the chamber floor during a stimulus vote. And when Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) tested positive for Covid-19, several of his colleagues including Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) had to self-isolate out of concerns about their exposure.
McConnell and Pelosi may have turned away tests that might have made the Hill slightly safer, but their judgment reflects political common sense: when across the country it’s still strikingly difficult to get tested, it might not be a great look to get a special set of tests as a favor from the White House.