Senate Democrats Hunker Down After Covid Infections Trip Agenda
- Democrats need simple majority to pass reconciliation bill
- Multiple senators have recently tested positive for virus
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More Zoom. More masks. And more tests.
Facing the congressional calendar crunch and a wave of new infections, Senate Democrats are taking extra precautions to avoid further spread of Covid-19 within their ranks and help ensure they have enough votes to pass health-care legislation next week. The additional measures illustrate the party’s slim majority as it seeks to push through major policies.
Democrats canceled their weekly lunch Tuesday and instead spoke virtually. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a member of Schumer’s leadership team, said other in-person meetings among senior members of the caucus were also moved online.
“Every possible meeting that we can make virtual is virtual, and more of us are masking up, ” Warren said. “Also, lots of hand sanitizer.”
Sen. Ben Ray Lujàn (D-N.M.) said party leaders have urged members of the caucus to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
“There’s so much on the line for the work we have to do,” said Lujàn, who missed months of votes while recovering from a stroke earlier this year.
Before they leave for the August recess, Democrats want to pass a budget reconciliation bill (H.R. 5376) — which requires only a simple majority to advance — that would give Medicare the power to negotiate drug prices and extend insurance premiums for people who get their coverage through Affordable Care Act exchanges.
All 50 members of the caucus and Vice President Kamala Harris would have to vote in person to approve the party-line bill if all Republicans are present and vote no. Time is running short for the marathon amendment process known as vote-a-rama that’s necessary to send the reconciliation bill back to the House.
Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) Covid infection deprived the majority of a full roster through this week. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) hasn’t voted since June as he recovers from hip surgery, but his office has said he can be available for votes if needed.
“It just goes to show how critical how every senator’s vote is, that even having one or two not here really causes a lot of delays,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said.
Health issues have hampered Democrats’ Senate majority all year. Sixteen different Democrats have reported testing positive for Covid this year, nearly all of them resulting in missed votes. They haven’t had all 50 Democrats in Washington for a vote yet this month.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was out sick with Covid earlier this month. Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) returned recently after bouts with the virus.
The Covid-induced absence of Manchin, Carper, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on Monday — as well as thunderstorms across the East Coast — postponed advancement of semiconductor subsidy legislation (H.R. 4346), which party leaders want to send to President Joe Biden as soon as this week.
Read More: Vote Math Tightens for Democrats as Senate Votes on Chips Bill
Schumer and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said Tuesday that absences are also determining the timeline for a vote on House-approved legislation (H.R. 8404) that would recognize same-sex marriages and repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (Public Law 104-199).
“We’ll vote when we have the votes,” said Baldwin, who is gay and leading the effort to get Republican support for her companion legislation.
House Rules Chair Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said Tuesday “the Senate is ailing,” and it may force the House to fly in from its August recess, which is scheduled to begin next week.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he’s tested himself more regularly to protect Democrats’ agenda and the health of the members themselves.
“I’m just trying to be as safe as can be, because we don’t have any votes to spare,” Kaine said. “Everybody’s gotta stay safe and test, and then keep each other safe.”
Warren, who along with Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) appeared with Biden in Massachusetts shortly before he tested positive for the virus, has worn a mask to votes since their joint appearance and tested frequently.
“I think that’s my fourth test in five days,” Warren said. “They’ve all been negative.”
Billy House in Washington also contributed to this story.
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