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House GOP lawmakers defy new mask requirement

The Hill logo The Hill 6/17/2020 Cristina Marcos
a person sitting in a chair talking on the phone: House GOP lawmakers defy new mask requirement © Greg Nash House GOP lawmakers defy new mask requirement

Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) directive that House committee leaders enforce a new mask requirement quickly encountered some GOP resistance on Wednesday, with several Republicans participating in legislative markups without facial coverings.

Guidance from the Capitol physician issued late Tuesday, which was requested by Pelosi, said masks are now required for any House meetings "in a limited enclosed space, such as a committee hearing room, for greater than 15 minutes." A senior Democratic aide said Tuesday that Pelosi had asked committee chairs to "enforce rules of decorum and exclude members who fail to comply."

The requirement came in response to numerous House Republicans who have dismissed previous guidance from the Capitol physician encouraging the use of facial coverings in recent weeks. While most lawmakers in both parties have been wearing masks in public, the handful who haven't are all conservative Republicans.

Compliance with the new requirement was spotty on Wednesday during separate markups of legislation by the House Judiciary and Transportation and Infrastructure committees.

"Wearing a mask not only helps protect you from getting sick from this deadly virus, it helps protect the other people in this room from getting sick," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). "In light of the attending physician's new guidance, I therefore fully expect all members on both sides of the aisle to wear a mask at all times that you are not speaking. If for whatever reason you are not willing to wear a mask, the House rules provide a way to participate remotely from your office without being physically present in this room."

Yet GOP lawmakers ignoring the mask rule largely didn't face pushback aside from verbal reminders.

Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, has been among the GOP lawmakers seen without a mask on Capitol Hill in recent weeks. He initially wore a mask at the start of Wednesday's Judiciary Committee markup of police reform legislation but later removed it.

About two hours later, Nadler briefly admonished Jordan and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) for not wearing masks.

"I would remind the gentleman, and other gentlemen, that for the safety of their colleagues and the decorum of the House, they should be wearing masks. Mr. Jordan," Nadler said, turning to look directly at Jordan.

But Nadler did not linger on the issue and quickly moved on to allow Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) to speak. Several hours later, however, Nadler announced that he would not grant speaking time to any lawmaker not wearing a mask.

He then initially ignored a request from McClintock - who was still not wearing a mask - for speaking time, but ultimately relented.

"I consider masks much more effective at spreading panic and much less effective at stopping a virus," McClintock said.

In the end, McClintock put on a mask and secured recognition from Nadler to speak again about 30 minutes later.

Members of both the Judiciary and Transportation committees had the option of either participating in person on Capitol Hill - with physical distancing measures in place to keep people at least six feet apart - or remotely via videoconference.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) led a markup of nearly $500 billion in surface transportation projects remotely from his office, while Republicans largely participated in person in the committee's cavernous hearing room on Capitol Hill.

Several GOP members were seen not wearing masks, including Reps. Sam Graves (Mo.), the panel's top Republican, and Greg Pence (Ind.), the brother of Vice President Pence.

"It's very unfortunate that people are more focused on who's wearing a mask than the important task of reforming policing in America," a spokesman for Republicans on the Judiciary Committee said when asked about the mask compliance.

Like DeFazio, many Democrats on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee participated in the markup remotely. But at least one Democrat, Rep. Stephen Lynch (Mass.) was physically present in the room with Republicans - and he was also spotted without a mask.

Despite the lack of widespread mask use, a spokesman for Graves said that members in the committee room were adhering to the physical distancing guidelines.

The mask requirement does not apply while lawmakers are speaking on camera, due to concerns about people watching on television with hearing issues being unable to read lips. The exemption could limit the effectiveness of the requirement, given warnings from public health experts that speaking without a mask can spread viral particles.

GOP lawmakers have been taking cues from President Trump, who has repeatedly declined to wear a mask during public events. He expressed a reluctance to wear a mask while announcing his administration's guidance in April that Americans should wear facial coverings to reduce spread of the coronavirus.

The White House initially began requiring staffers to wear masks in May after one of Trump's personal valets and Vice President Pence's press secretary tested positive for the coronavirus. But White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Wednesday that West Wing employees are no longer required to wear masks, although she said it is "recommended."

The loosening of mask requirements in the West Wing nevertheless contradicts the advice from public health experts and members of the Trump administration urging the public to wear masks.

The new mask requirement in House committees came just a day after Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.) revealed that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Rice was seen without a mask during a House session on May 28. He told CNN at the time that he wears a mask when he can't stay at least six feet away from other people, such as on an airplane.

"I'm socially distancing. I'm staying six feet away from folks," Rice told CNN.

Updated: 6:59 p.m.

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