By Paul Cobler The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON – Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill are rethinking the way they operate following Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert’s COVID-19 diagnosis last Wednesday.
Since the news broke of the Tyler Republican’s positive test at the White House prescreening for a scheduled trip to Texas on Air Force One with President Donald Trump, anxiety has spiked in the Capitol building, with multiple lawmakers self-isolating due to exposure to Gohmert and with the Texan on the receiving end of a wave of criticism.
One member, Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva, tested positive for COVID-19 after chairing a Tuesday meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee that Gohmert attended, Grijalva’s office announced Saturday.
Attorney General Bill Barr and Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, both tested negative for COVID-19 last week after they interacted with Gohmert prior to his diagnosis.
Gohmert, 66, was often seen walking the Capitol without a face covering.
Lawmakers from both parties are now demanding that rapid testing be brought to the Capitol in response to Gohert becoming the ninth member of Congress to test positive for the virus.
“The need for testing throughout Capitol Hill campus remains immediate,” Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last Thursday. “Unfortunately, our sensible suggestions were ignored and Congress is still operating without a comprehensive plan for a safe work environment.”
“By failing to adequately protect the people who work in this institution, your majority has created unnecessary risk and confusion for members, staff, press and all employees of the house,” he said.
Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, said Congress should revisit the idea of rapid testing in the Capitol
On Sunday, The New York Times Editorial Board called on Congress to begin testing its members.
Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, declined an offer in May from the White House to bring rapid testing to the Capitol, writing that they didn’t want to take resources away from the nation’s expanding testing apparatus.
“It’s not up to Sen. McConnell and me. As far as I’m concerned, it’s up to the Capitol physician,” Pelosi told reporters on Friday. “There are about 20,000 people who make the Capitol run. And the Capitol physician has not said yet that he thinks we should be tested. But it’s not just us, it’s others as well.”
McConnell will not change his approach to testing either, a spokesperson for his office told Politico.
Pelosi questioned how it would look for the 535 members of Congress to have access to rapid testing while thousands of other people, including staffers, Capitol police and maintenance workers, do their jobs inside the Capitol building each day without access to such tests.
On Wednesday evening, Pelosi announced face coverings would be mandatory for members on the House floor. House lawmakers were already required to wear masks during committee meetings, but some members, including Gohmert, often violated this rule. Pelosi said that she has the authority to direct the sergeant at arms to remove anyone who ignores the mandate.
“I’m so sorry for him,” Pelosi said Wednesday of Gohmert’s diagnosis. “But I’m also sorry for my members, who are concerned because he has been showing up at meetings without a mask and making a thing of it.”
While Gohmert’s colleagues criticized his indifference toward face coverings, Gohmert has speculated that wearing a mask may have contributed to his catching the virus _ despite scientific evidence indicating that the widespread use of face coverings in a community can greatly decrease the ability of the virus to spread.
“There are an awful lot of people that think it’s a great thing to do all the time, but I can’t help but think if I hadn’t been wearing a mask so much in the last 10 days or so, I really wonder if I would have gotten it,” Gohmert told KETK in a Wednesday-morning interview filmed from his Capitol office, where he traveled to after learning of his positive test.
That evening, Gohmert said he would begin to take hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that experts warn is not effective in treating COVID-19 but that Trump and his followers have been pushing as a possible treatment for the virus.
Gohmert’s daughter criticized her father’s actions, tweeting on Friday that “wearing a mask is a nonpartisan issue.”
“My father ignored medical advice and now he has COVID,” wrote Caroline Brooks, a recording artist also known as BELLSAINT and one of Gohmert’s three daughters. “This has been a heartbreaking battle bc I love my dad and I don’t want him to die. Please listen to medical experts. It’s not worth following a president who has no remorse for leading his followers to an early grave.”
Gohmert isn’t the only Texas lawmaker to be recently diagnosed with COVID-19.
State Rep. Tony Tinderholt was hospitalized late last month after testing positive for the virus. He is believed to be the first Texas legislator to be diagnosed with the virus.
The Arlington Republican, who has criticized Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s mask order as unconstitutional but encourages the public to wear masks in public, told the Texas Tribune that “I truly thought last Friday was going to be my last.”