'We are the last to leave': Pelosi resists closing Congress amid coronavirus crisis

March 10, 2020 4:56 PM EDT

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to reporters following a national security briefing for members of the House of Representatives about how Russia has been using social media to stoke racial and social differences ahead of this year's general elect

By Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell and David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers rejected on Tuesday the idea of shutting down Congress as the highly contagious coronavirus spreads in the United States, conscious of the need to show calm in the face of the unfolding public health crisis.

"We are the captains of the ship," House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Democratic lawmakers at a meeting, according to a person in the room. "We are the last to leave."

But in private discussions, top Democrats and Republicans are considering what to do if Congress needs to shut its doors to avoid infecting thousands of visitors, staff and legislators who regularly flock through its hallways.

"There are a lot of people watching us, and I think it's important for us to act prudently but not panic. That will send a signal to an awful lot of people around the country," Republican Senator John Cornyn told reporters.

The number of cases of the potentially deadly respiratory illness caused by the virus has risen steadily in the United States this week, especially among the elderly, stoking concerns of a health and economic crisis. A number of members of Congress are in their 70s and 80s, making them particularly vulnerable. Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in Congress, are both in their late 70s.

Some lawmakers on Tuesday wondered aloud how long Congress could continue to function normally with members and staff traveling regularly between the U.S. Capitol and home districts that include coronavirus epicenters.

Congress is scheduled to be in recess next week, and congressional aides said there are discussions about lawmakers remaining out for a second week.

"I don't think it's the best idea for us to be flying back and forth," said Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat whose home district includes the hard-hit city of Seattle.

"It's time for us to take some steps to figure out other ways that we can get our business done," she said.

Each member of Congress has been asked to draw up contingency plans to keep their offices open. The House is distributing about 1,500 laptops to member offices for teleworking, and lawmakers have been given access to money left over from 2019 to purchase additional equipment.

Jayapal said she held a telephonic town hall on Monday night that drew more than 4,000 participants and 120 questions.

Congressional leaders from both parties are meeting behind closed doors about the potential need for stronger measures.

A bipartisan pair of House lawmakers - Democrat Eric Swalwell and Republican Rick Crawford - have introduced legislation that would allow members of Congress to participate in committee hearings and vote on legislation from remote sites.

But Pelosi and other Democrats oppose the idea. During a Democratic caucus meeting on Tuesday, Representative Jerrold Nadler suggested voting remotely, but Pelosi shot it down.

Neither Pelosi nor McConnell wants to give up their power to compel members to convene at the Capitol, according to a Senate Republican aide.

Under current rules, the House and Senate require a bare majority of lawmakers, known as a quorum before they can conduct normal business. But Congress can arrange to pass legislation by unanimous, voice votes in a near-empty chamber, according to aides. That could enable Congress to function with a limited number of members present from districts near Washington.

Lawmakers did just that in 1918, at the height of the Spanish flu pandemic that killed an estimated 650,000 Americans.

After the House stood in recess for much of the first half of October 1918, congressional leaders had difficulty getting enough lawmakers to return to Washington to make a quorum.

That prompted party leaders to strike a deal allowing legislation to pass by unanimous consent, according to a web post by the Office of the House Historian.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; writing by David Morgan; Editing by Tom Brown)

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