Barefaced Republicans Defy Leader Pleas to Don Masks in Capitol

Pleas by Republican congressional leaders that Americans wear face masks isn’t dampening the determination of some GOP lawmakers to go barefaced in the Capitol.

“I’ll wear it if my boss tells me to,” Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) said June 29 as he left a meeting of the House Republican Steering Committee.

“When I had cancer, I didn’t ask people to wear masks. I asked them to use hand sanitizer,” said Green, who was an Army flight surgeon during the Iraq war. The lawmaker said he wears masks only on airplanes or if people get very close.

That’s not the advice of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy(R-Calf.), who have both urged their fellow citizens to cover their faces. So has House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), whose tweet of a picture of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, wearing a mask went viral.

But a band of Washington Republicans that includes Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) have stood in solidarity with President Donald Trump, who has been averse to wearing a mask in public. However, Trump said in an interview with Fox Business last week that he’d recently worn a mask and “sort of liked the way I looked.”

“If people feel good about it, they should do it,” he added.

Photographer: Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) has often declined to wear a mask at committee markups and hearings.

The discord over masks on Capitol Hill reflects the increasingly rancorous and polarized national debate over the severity of measures needed to suppress the virus.

Even as most Republicans follow suit while on the House or Senate floors, the outlier libertarian-leaning conservatives have argued for personal choice despite advice from public health experts that wearing face masks helps curb the spread of the virus.

Among them is House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs(Ariz.), whose state is experiencing a spike in Covid-19 cases.

Biggs and a dozen Freedom Caucus members were mostly barefaced at a June 25 news conference outside the Capitol. “It’s up to them,” Biggs replied when asked what he tells constituents about masks.

“There are some on the right who feel the public-health reaction to the Covid pandemic has been exaggerated and has done tremendous damage to our economy needlessly,” said Republican strategist Michael Steel.

“There’s a desire to support the president to encourage his claims that he has the pandemic under control,” said Steel, who advises people to wear face masks.

Litmus Test

Republican pollster Dan Judy said in an email that “making mask-wearing some sort of ideological litmus test — which both parties seem intent on doing right now — is a mistake that will frustrate independents as well as more centrist-minded partisans.”

Democratic lawmakers have followed the examples of presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) by wearing face disc.

Partisan anger over face masks erupted June 17 at a House Judiciary Committee markup, a day after Pelosi, citing advice of the attending physician of the Capitol, directed members to wear them at committee meetings. The Sergeant at Arms and Capitol Police have the authority to deny entry to members not wearing masks. Committee chairs are empowered and urged to enforce mask wearing but aren’t required to, according to a leadership aide who described the speaker’s guidance on condition of anonymity.

“You choose to wear a mask, I do not,” Rep Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) told Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) when he was admonished for sitting barefaced in the committee.

“It is not your choice,’’ Nadler said, citing his authority under House rules to enforce safety and decorum.

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

A week later, Jordan, the ranking member, was called out for not wearing his mask while sitting on the dais next to Nadler. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), who was presiding at the time, told Jordan she found his conduct “incredibly disrespectful” to others by “putting other peoples’ lives and their families in danger.”

“Every time I speak to the chairman, I put a mask on, I maintain social distancing,” Jordan replied. He was later spotted wearing his mask.

Spotty Enforcement

The rule has been enforced unevenly. Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-Ore.) didn’t penalize members who weren’t wearing their masks at a June 17 markup.

Neither Pelosi’s directive nor the Capitol physician’s advice applies to members on the House floor during debate or roll calls, when they enter the chamber in small groups to cast votes. So some Republicans don’t wear masks on the floor.

Those spotted in the chamber without masks include McClintock, Jordan, Mike Johnson (La.) and Rep. Don Young (Alaska), who at 87 is in the age group at the highest risk from Covid-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

One Republican who does wear a mask, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart(Fla.), survived a three-week bout of Covid-19 during which he lost 15 pounds: “To me it’s something that I won’t play with.” But he doesn’t urge his colleagues to wear masks because “these are individual choices.”

With assistance from Erik Wasson of Bloomberg News, Nancy Ognanovich, Courtney Rozen, and Roxana Tiron

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rowley in Washington at jrowley@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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