On Sept. 29, Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, attended a party together to watch the first presidential debate.
Two days later, feeling sick, Lee took a test for the coronavirus, receiving a positive diagnosis, the first of three GOP senators to announce in a 24-hour span they contracted the virus. Less than 11 full days later, Lee participated in Monday’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, delivering an opening statement in person – with no mask – and periodically whispering to his GOP colleagues.
Yet Cruz, who tested negative and has never had any symptoms, remained in quarantine at his Washington apartment and delivered his statement via videoconference technology on a big screen just over Lee’s right shoulder in the hearing room.
That split-screen image summed up the Republican response to a pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans – caution from some, pre-coronavirus behavior from others – as well as the confusion about the medical protocols, both on Capitol Hill and throughout America, more than seven months after the virus started spreading across the nation.
It also demonstrated the oddity of a confirmation process that will be matched with the word unprecedented for decades to come.
The hearing began just 16 days after the Sept. 26 Rose Garden announcement of Barrett’s nomination, an event that helped to spawn a coronavirus outbreak among President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, senior White House officials, two senators who attended, including Lee, and other guests at the largely maskless gathering. It remains unclear whether those in attendance first contracted the virus at what Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has labeled a superspreader event.
After the vainglorious day of opening statements from all 22 senators on the Judiciary Committee, the real action starts Tuesday – three weeks before voters finish casting their ballots in the presidential race and other elections – with more than 20 hours of questioning expected through the week.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has made seating Barrett on the court before the Nov. 3 election his top priority this fall, while Trump has said he wants her on the high court so that she can rule in his favor if there are any legal disputes from the election.
Yet the pandemic will serve as the constant backdrop for these hearings, from the lighthearted moments of senators battling technology as they appear remotely to the very question of whether the hearings are themselves a risk of becoming another super-spreading event.
“Hello,” Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said at the start of her statement.
“We hear you,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the committee chairman, responded. But then Graham asked her to stop, because the video was not working.
“Congratulations on being on the ticket,” said Graham, who has not seen Harris since Joe Biden picked her to be his running mate in August.
Finally, with video working, Harris began by noting that the hearing itself was a violation of health laws under D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s orders not allowing 50 or more people to meet at an indoor gathering.
Reporters inside the room estimated that 70 people attended the afternoon session, including senators, their staff, White House officials, Barrett and her family, media and other nonpartisan support staff.
Also in the room were the Senate’s two oldest members – Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, both 87.
The federal government does not have to abide by local laws. Graham, whose debate last weekend against his Nov. 3 opponent, Jaime Harrison, was canceled over a dispute about him taking a coronavirus test, defended the hearing.
“I was tested a week ago Friday. I was negative. I feel fine,” he told reporters during a midday break.
He said Senate officials consulted congressional safety experts in setting up the distanced setting. “So we’re running this hearing safely,” Graham said, later entering a letter into the record saying that congressional safety officials said the hearing met the Centers for Disease Control and Protection guidelines.
But the underlying coronavirus politics of the moment came to a head when White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows refused requests to wear his mask while talking to media outside the hearing room in a cramped, narrow hallway.
“I’m not going to talk through a mask,” he said, walking away rather than answering any questions.
In terms of in-person attendance by senators who recently tested positive, the CDC guidelines were adhered to, even if they appeared confusing.
Shortly after the hearing began, Lee’s office released a letter from Brian Monahan, the attending physician of Congress, explaining how he cleared CDC outlines despite symptoms that lingered for more than a week. The letter made no mention of whether he had tested negative and, in fact, Monahan said the CDC did not recommend repeat testing.
Lee’s last fever greater than 100.4 degrees came Thursday, and he did not have to take any fever-reducing medications Saturday or Sunday, Monahan wrote. By Sunday his only remaining symptom was body ache.
Yet because his symptoms began 12 days ago, beyond the CDC’s 10-day window, Lee was cleared to attend in person. Still, when Lee approached Graham during the hearing, the chairman grabbed his mask to put it on for their discussion. Lee was also seen wearing a mask at times.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who also attended the Sept. 26 event announcing Barrett’s nomination, began experiencing virus symptoms Oct. 3.
“I had serious symptoms on Saturday morning. They diminished and went away by Saturday afternoon and I’ve been great ever since,” Tillis told North Carolina media Tuesday.
Yet because he’s not outside the 10-day window since his symptoms occurred, Tillis stayed home, saying he would return once doctors gave him the go-ahead.
“The moment that I’m cleared, I’ll drive my truck up to Washington and I’ll be sitting in the committee hearings,” Tillis said last week.
And then there is Cruz, whose biggest coronavirus mistake was standing near Lee while watching Trump debate Biden.
“He feels healthy, hasn’t exhibited any covid-19 symptoms, and has tested negative. In accordance with medical advice he will return to the Senate for the Supreme Court nomination hearings,” Cruz’s office said Oct. 3, announcing his quarantine.
He has stayed in his Washington apartment since, not seeing his family and, symptom free, beaming into media shows the entire time.
“I got tested. I came out negative,” Cruz said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And I am spending two weeks sitting here in my apartment in D.C., actually frustratingly enough, away from Heidi, away from the girls. But I want to do what is reasonable and beneficial to protect the safety of others.”
Cruz is expected to attend Tuesday’s question-and-answer session in person.