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How Trump's Coronavirus Diagnosis Will Affect Congressional Duties


President Trump remains hospitalized and under treatment for COVID-19. The number of positive tests from Republican lawmakers, officials and the journalists who cover them is now in the dozens - among them, three Republican senators who are now under quarantine. And that may affect plans to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before Election Day. Let's talk about that with NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

Hi, Sue.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Pretty busy. What is the latest on these senators and how they are doing?

DAVIS: So Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson was the latest to disclose a positive test result. He did that yesterday. He was not at that Rose Garden ceremony that was attended by many of the people who have now tested positive, but he joins Utah's Mike Lee and North Carolina's Thom Tillis. Both of those senators were at that ceremony. All three of them say they feel pretty good. Lee says he's experienced some mild symptoms. Tillis and Johnson say they remain asymptomatic for now. I would also note a fourth senator, Nebraska's Ben Sasse. He says he's tested negative, but because he attended the Rose Garden ceremony, he announced he will self-quarantine just as a matter of precaution.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As we mentioned, three of those senators sit on the very important Senate Judiciary Committee, which is expected to begin confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett on October 12. That is just eight days from now. Is this going to affect that timeline?

DAVIS: It could, but so far, it has not. Lee, Tillis and Sasse are the three that serve on that committee. For now, they all say they plan on returning to Washington for the start of the hearings that are expected to last about four days. Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham put out a statement this weekend saying he plans to move ahead, and he notes that committees can hold hearings even if the full Senate's not in session and that senators can participate remotely. The full Senate's not expected to come back into session until October 19 now, and that's the week the Judiciary Committee's still planning to vote out the nomination - on October 22. And that would put a final vote in the full Senate the week after that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Considering this outbreak so far has only affected Republicans, are there no senators questioning the wisdom of calling people back to Washington to sit indoors for hours over several days for this confirmation hearing?

DAVIS: No Republican senators. And I do think it speaks to the level of dedication Republicans have to push this nomination through before the election. In some ways, I think it also speaks to the lack of confidence they have about the party's ability to hold the White House and the Senate in this election.

Democrats on the committee are protesting this. They sent a letter to Graham saying that this decision, quote, "threatens the health and safety of all those who are called upon to do the work of this body." You know, not just senators show up to work on Capitol Hill. But right now, Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, has the math for the votes on his side, I would say as long as this outbreak stays contained. If there's more positives, it could affect these calculations.

But senators - the other important part here - senators cannot vote remotely. They have to be physically on the floor of the Senate to do so. There was a push earlier this year to change the rules to allow it, but Mitch McConnell said no way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, it might surprise some listeners to hear that there is no testing system on Capitol Hill even seven months into this pandemic. I mean, is this outbreak going to force any kind of change in Congress?

DAVIS: You know, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker, and Mitch McConnell, who agree on basically nothing, agreed on this at the beginning of the pandemic. They rejected together the Trump administration's offer to send up rapid test machines to the Hill. They didn't want Congress to be seen as getting special treatment that the public couldn't get. But I think as this week has illustrated to the public, it's not really about special treatment as much as it is assuring to the country that their government can operate smoothly in times of crisis. And more and more lawmakers are calling on leadership to say, we need to institute testing protocols.

The House and Senate operate under their own rules. They would have to come up with their own separate testing protocols. Pelosi now says she's looking at it to see if it could work. The minority leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, says he wants to do a testing and trace - contact tracing protocol, but McConnell rejected that again on Friday. He said he believes the current system of just wearing masks and social distancing - the CDC guidelines - are - remain enough for now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

Thank you.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.