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Lawmakers Call For A Coronavirus Testing Program On Capitol Hill

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Senate is not voting this week because three Republicans tested positive for the coronavirus. But the Judiciary Committee did meet today for Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation to the Supreme Court, and the outbreak was a point of contention during today's hearing. Now that several senators have had to quarantine, the lack of testing on Capitol Hill months into the pandemic is in the spotlight once again. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Republican Ron Johnson is the third GOP senator to test positive for the coronavirus infection this month, and he's ready to return to the Capitol regardless of his status.

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RON JOHNSON: I've already told leadership I'll go in in a moon suit.

GRISALES: That's a Wisconsin Republican on a radio talk show last week underscoring GOP determination to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Colleagues Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina tested positive after attending President Trump's White House event to announce Barrett's nomination. They found out days after being on Capitol Hill, prompting Johnson to do a check. But he says it's not going to derail his plans to vote in person on the floor later this month.

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JOHNSON: You know, where there's a will, there's a way. We can do these things.

GRISALES: But the large Capitol community still doesn't have one option the White House has, and that's widespread regular testing months into the pandemic - this as lawmakers fly back and forth between hotspots and other locations. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell still insists his chamber can move the confirmation forward despite the outbreak.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: I think we've shown that we can function safely.

GRISALES: Since March, coronavirus has infected more than 20 lawmakers and more than 120 workers, and dozens more have quarantined. McConnell has avoided the White House for more than two months because of their approach to the pandemic, but he thinks the Senate is taking the right steps.

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MCCONNELL: And I personally didn't feel that they were approaching protection from this illness in the same way that I thought was appropriate for the Senate.

GRISALES: In a rare point of agreement, McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have fended off calls for a widespread testing program. Pelosi is deferring to the Capitol's small medical office to greenlight the plan. Here she is on CBS' "Face The Nation."

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NANCY PELOSI: My confidence in this, respectful of those views, is with the House attending physician.

GRISALES: Pelosi maintains that a Capitol testing program has to meet the needs of its more than 500 lawmakers and 20,000 workers as well, a large undertaking. So far, the attending physician, Dr. Brian Monahan, is faced with testing critical cases and tracing outbreaks. He's warned of the dangers in a series of videos to the Capitol since the pandemic's first days.

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BRIAN MONAHAN: The situation is extremely serious and requires your urgent attention.

GRISALES: There's bipartisan support to expand current testing focused only on those with symptoms or exposure to a positive case. The top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, has said enough is enough.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: I have asked McConnell repeatedly that all senators get tested and all our staffs get tested, and so far, he has not gone along with it. And I think he is very, very wrong.

GRISALES: The House administration panel's ranking Republican, Rodney Davis, tested positive several weeks ago and said the current outbreak highlights the need for a broader testing protocol.

RODNEY DAVIS: We in the House ought to be prepared to have a long-term approach to testing.

GRISALES: Since the new cases in the Senate, two more House members have tested positive for coronavirus. Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse brought up the concerns at today's judiciary hearing.

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SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: I don't know who has been tested, who should be tested, who was the danger.

GRISALES: And that signals this debate over Congress and testing will likely continue in the weeks or perhaps months to come. Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOMBOX SONG, "MIDNIGHT ON THE RUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.