The drama over mask wearing on Capitol Hill is back and in full force.
One day after Capitol Attending Physician Dr. Brian Monahan reinstated a mask mandate in the House of Representatives, many House Republicans purposefully defied the rules by appearing on the floor maskless.
This is the latest sign of the deep divide and tension between Republicans and Democrats in the House on how to handle the Covid-19 pandemic and various other issues, with it even festering at the top, between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
GOP Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida was seen without a mask walking off the House floor on Wednesday even though he told reporters he is not vaccinated.
“I have not been vaccinated. I have had Covid-19. I’ve recovered,” Donalds told reporters.
When asked why he did not wear a mask on the House floor, Donalds said, “This rule is stupid. Let’s just be very blunt about this.”
“The Senate has no rules, so it’s funny how Covid operates differently here than in the Senate,” he added.
Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman of California got into a yelling match with Donalds outside the chamber over mask wearing.
Huffman, in a mask, said Donalds was selfish for not wearing one. Donalds responded, “Don’t be worried about me! Mind your business!”
Republicans held a tense meeting with Monahan on Wednesday to express their frustrations over the new mask guidance and press him about his decision-making process. Lawmakers tried to pin Monahan down on whether he received any pressure from Democratic leaders to update his guidance, but according to sources in the room, Monahan held firm that he did not.
The physician also told lawmakers he’d be willing to stand up to Pelosi and get fired if she ever did try to pressure him. According to members in the room, Monahan explained his rationale behind the new mask guidance: While DC isn’t a COVID hot spot, the Capitol has lawmakers coming from all over the country including from hot spots.
Republicans tried twice to have the House adjourn as the result of boiling frustration over the new guidance. Rep. Chip Roy, one of many right-wing Republicans to go maskless on Wednesday, gave an impassioned floor speech about why he was not wearing a mask when he made the first attempt to adjourn the House.
Arguing that the mask mandate breeds resentment among members, Roy said on the House floor, “No kidding. Consider resentment being magnified right here in the floor of the House of Representatives. We are absolutely sick and tired of it. And so are the American people. This shame of an institution is doing nothing for the American people.”
“This institution is a sham. And we should adjourn and shut this place down,” added the Texas Republican, who last week refused to tell CNN his vaccination status.
GOP Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Andy Biggs of Arizona gave Roy a standing ovation after his floor remarks, all without wearing masks.
CNN spotted at least 24 Republicans who chose not to wear masks on the House floor Wednesday.
When Boebert came to the floor, she threw a mask back at a floor staffer when she was offered one while trying to walk onto the floor maskless, according to a witness account relayed to CNN.
Boebert’s office defended the Colorado freshman’s actions in a statement to CNN: “Rep. Boebert refuses to comply with Speaker Pelosi’s anti-science, totalitarian mask mandate. When offered a mask, she returned it with a quick slide across the table.”
Asked later by CNN if she plans to keep defying the rules and get fined, Boebert said, “If we cede our freedoms here, there is no chance for the people that I represent back home.”
Greene was defiant when asked by CNN if she plans to put a mask on. “Do you see a mask on my face?” she asked. “I think that’s the answer to your question.”
The resentment from Republicans over mask wearing also led to an exchange of insults between each party’s leadership. Pelosi called McCarthy a “moron” on Wednesday morning after being asked by a reporter about the California Republican’s criticism of the Capitol physician’s mask mandate in the House.
McCarthy responded by saying, “Well, if she’s so brilliant can she tell me where the science in the building changes between the House and the Senate?” – pointing out that masks are now required in the House but only recommended in the Senate.
McCarthy was spotted on the House floor Wednesday wearing a mask.
Based on the House rules, members first get warnings for evading mask rules, then $500 fines for second offenses and $2,500 for offenses after that. The House Committee on Ethics has issued a considerable number of fines and warnings since the mask rule was first instated. Members had been allowed to be on the House floor without masks since June 11, but the House attending physician reversed that guidance Tuesday night as the Delta variant emerges as the dominant strain of Covid across the country and in light of new US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
The whiplash of the change in mask guidance has also bred some confusion among members.
Democratic Rep. Josh Harder of California walked in to vote from outside and wasn’t even aware there was a mask mandate. Staff asked him to put a mask on and he responded, “Oh, they’re required?”
Underlying the mask debate that is back to being front and center among members in the House is the question of how many members are still not vaccinated. CNN reported in May that 100% of House Democrats had been vaccinated but only 44.8% of House Republicans were known to have gotten the shots. Just last week, still nearly half of House Republicans would not share their vaccination status.
Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin sent a letter to the House attending physician asking how many members have yet to confirm whether they’ve been vaccinated, underscoring how questions about vaccine status underpin the debate over masks.
When Roy’s motion to adjourn failed, Democratic Rep. Joe Morelle of New York admonished his Republican colleagues for refusing to wear masks on the House floor.
“I note a great irony, Mr. Speaker,” Morelle said. “We face enormous challenges in our country and in our world, but the members who refuse to wear masks on the floor in the face of rising infections of a deadly Delta variant, particularly in states with low vaccination rates, respond to all of this by making a motion to adjourn, to go home, to quit, to stop working. How ironic.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.