In sprawling Capitol, leaders struggle to keep virus at bay

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Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y. walks to the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 29, 2020, for a meeting with Pelosi, President Donald Trump's Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are under increasing pressure from lawmakers to boost testing for the coronavirus in the Capitol, an idea they have so far rejected because of concerns about the availability of tests across the country.

Despite the unusual nature of work in the Capitol — lawmakers fly in and out weekly, from 50 states, and attend votes and hearings together — the two leaders have maintained that they will not institute a testing program for members, staff or the hundreds of other people who work in the complex.

The lack of tracking was highlighted this week when a GOP lawmaker, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, found out he had contracted the virus. He was tested only because he had been scheduled to travel with President Donald Trump.

Fearing Gohmert's frequent refusal to wear a mask could have caused other members and staff to become infected, Pelosi and Capitol officials quickly issued broad new mask requirements for the House. But the speaker maintained there would be no comprehensive testing for now, citing a lack of supplies, the logistics of regularly testing hundreds of people and the fact that others across the country don't have the same access.

“It’s the members of Congress and support staff and that’s very many people,” Pelosi told CNN's Anderson Cooper. “We can’t say, well, as members, we should get tested but the other people shouldn’t."

The dilemma for Congress is similar to the one facing workplaces and schools as they struggle to reopen. Lawmakers and staff during the summer have been wearing masks, keeping their distance, cleaning surfaces, limiting crowds and working from their homes when possible. But it's difficult if not impossible to fully protect against the coronavirus without a robust system of testing and tracing, and there's a lack of infrastructure nationwide to make it happen.

Gohmert's positive test prompted immediate concerns across the Capitol as he had voted, walked the hallways and attended two hearings on Tuesday, often without a mask. One of the hearings was with Attorney General Willam Barr, who immediately took a test that came back negative, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman. At least three of Gohmert's colleagues said they would quarantine because they interacted with him.

But it did not move the speaker on testing. Pelosi said they would need more equipment to test everyone in the Capitol and the results would take days to come back, making them “almost useless.” They would also need personal protective equipment for those administering the tests that she said should go to health care providers and teachers.