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Republicans Rebel Against Mask Requirement in House Chamber

May 20, 2021by Kevin Freking, Associated Press
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., puts her mask back on after a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans are rebelling against the requirement that they wear a mask on the House floor, stoking tensions with majority Democrats who are refusing to change the rules following updated guidance from federal health officials.

Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., led an effort Wednesday to get the Office of the Attending Physician to update its guidance for mask wearing for vaccinated lawmakers and staff while they are in the House chamber and in committee hearing rooms, but Democrats defeated it along a party-line vote of 218-210. 

Lawmakers can remove their masks when speaking on the House floor, but otherwise must keep it on when they are in the chamber. There is no requirement for wearing masks in the Senate chamber.

Democratic lawmakers say they are tired of the requirements, too, but they worry that some of their Republican colleagues have declined to be vaccinated and could spread the virus. 

Some GOP lawmakers opted to go without a mask during votes Tuesday, with a few taking particular care to stand in the well of the chamber to ensure that spectators, colleagues and C-SPAN’s cameras could not miss them. 

Their defiance could come at a financial cost. Lawmakers who refuse to wear masks are subject to a fine of $500 for the first offense. Subsequent offenses can result in a $2,500 fine. In practice, however, the House sergeant-at-arms is providing a warning for the first offense.

Seven lawmakers will be getting such warnings, according to a list obtained by The Associated Press: Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Chip Roy of Texas, Bob Good of Virginia, Louie Gohmert of Texas and Mary Miller of Illinois

Three more had already received a warning and will be fined $500. They are Reps. Brian Mast of Florida, Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa and Beth Van Duyne of Texas. They will be subject to a fine of $2,500 for additional offenses.

McCarthy followed up on their protests with a resolution that stated the mask mandate “hinders the ability of the House to properly and effectively conduct the people’s business.”

The resolution stated that those who have not received the vaccine “pose no real threat to those who have been vaccinated.” And it called on the attending physician of the House to consult with the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and provide updated mask guidelines.

The mask revolt in the House has been brewing for months, with some Republicans chafing at the extra safety precautions imposed during the pandemic and bolstered after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Democrats imposed mask requirements last year when many Republicans, defying public health guidance, refused to wear face coverings.

The complaints from some Republicans have grown louder now that the CDC has altered its mask guidelines, saying it’s safe for fully vaccinated people to skip face coverings and social distancing in virtually all situations.

The CDC guidelines say all people should still wear masks in crowded indoor locations such as airplanes, buses, hospitals and prisons. Lawmakers and others in the Capitol have stopped wearing masks when moving around the building.

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said the Office of the Attending Physician has been consistently conferring with the CDC, and as recently as Tuesday. He said new guidance issued Wednesday states the mask requirement is “entirely consistent” with the CDC’s recommendations and has ensured that the House can debate and pass legislation safely and effectively.

“If Minority Leader McCarthy wants to be maskless on the Floor of the House of Representatives, he should get to work vaccinating his Members,” Hammill wrote.

At one point Tuesday, Boebert, Taylor-Greene and Massie stood together unmasked for several minutes in the well of the House. Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland went over and spoke with them. The conversation appeared cordial.

Raskin told reporters that he can’t wait to take his mask off during House floor proceedings. “The reason we can’t take our masks off is because so many Republicans are not vaccinated and are refusing to do it,” he said.

After Tuesday’s votes, several of the Republicans who declined to wear a mask gathered outside the Capitol for a group picture. 

Massie said Wednesday that he had previously contracted COVID-19 and recovered. He said he is “immune” and that “part of the reason you know they’re not following the science here is they don’t care if you have the antibody.”

The CDC states on its website that people should get vaccinated even if they had already had COVID-19.

“That’s because experts do not yet know how long you are protected from getting sick again after recovering from COVID-19. Even if you have already recovered from COVID-19, it is possible — although rare — that you could be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 again,” the CDC says.

Massie said he was prepared to test the mask requirement again.

“I can’t afford to be fined into poverty, but if I’m not willing to spend $500 defending freedom, I don’t belong here,” he said.

Roy said that if any lawmakers or staff members have health concerns, they have the ability to get vaccinated and to wear a mask. Meanwhile, he said the availability of vaccines and the data about their effectiveness shows “that we can engage out in the world” and Americans should see their lawmakers doing that.

“Contrary to some people’s public view and the caricature of myself and others, I’m not looking to, you know, nuke the place,” Roy said. “What I’m looking to do is raise issues, consistently sort of push back and represent my constituents who are tired of this.”

Taylor-Greene took to the House floor again on Wednesday without her mask. She remained in the chamber for much of the day and at times positioned herself in a chair behind the Republican lawmakers who spoke on the floor, which ensured she would be seen by television viewers.

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