The coronavirus officially returned to the United States Senate on Monday.
News that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tested positive quickly jolted through the Capitol and sparked an hours-long scramble to figure out who else might have been exposed, which only escalated after sources confirmed that the South Carolina Republican attended an outdoor event on Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) houseboat over the weekend with other senators.
Graham’s “breakthrough” case, the first known instance among senators, comes as the chamber has largely loosened social distancing restrictions in recent months, with at least 96 of the 100 senators vaccinated. Though the Capitol physician has recommended mask wearing regardless of vaccination status, most Republicans have not been wearing them, and even some Democrats would remove them while hobnobbing on the floor with their colleagues.
It also comes as the Senate is embarking on a tense slog of legislating: It is currently debating a bipartisan bill, which Graham has been helping advance, before Democrats turn to a budget resolution and then leave for a weeks-long break.
“Y’all OK? Nobody’s sick?” a masked GOP Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.) asked reporters as senators came to the Capitol for the first vote after news of Graham’s positive test result.
Asked why he decided to wear a mask, Shelby said, “Why do you think? I’d like to stay healthy. … I was in the room the other day with Lindsey when we were meeting with [Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)]. So you don’t know.”
Though the Senate didn’t vote this weekend, Graham was in the Capitol on Monday and briefly spoke with reporters. In a move that didn’t go unnoticed, the normally chatty GOP senator appeared to be in a hurry and was wearing a mask — an unusual move for the largely maskless Senate GOP caucus.
“I’ll talk to y’all later,” he told reporters as they tried to push for details on potential changes to the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Nearly an hour later, his office released a statement announcing that Graham had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“I started having flu-like symptoms Saturday night and went to the doctor this morning. I feel like I have a sinus infection and at present time I have mild symptoms. I will be quarantining for ten days,” he said.
Experts say infections in people who are vaccinated, known as breakthrough cases, are rare and usually result in only mild symptoms.
An analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that less than 1 percent of fully vaccinated people got a breakthrough case in every state reporting data. The highest rate of hospitalization among vaccinated people was just 0.06 percent, in Arkansas. The rate of death among vaccinated people was at a high of just 0.01 percent.
“These infections, because they are so mild, illustrate just how efficacious the vaccine is in taming the virus,” Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, wrote in an email. “The virus is not going anywhere and overtime [there are] going to be breakthrough infections. The fact that they are mild due to the vaccines doing exactly what they were designed to do should be the story.”
Graham credited the vaccine with helping keep his coronavirus symptoms in check.
“I am very glad I was vaccinated because without vaccination I am certain I would not feel as well as I do now,” he said.
Graham’s positive result is the first for senators in months, after most were vaccinated. His diagnosis raised immediate questions about whether another senator could test positive after several lawmakers confirmed that they had been at a houseboat gathering with Graham over the weekend.
Manchin, who hosted the event on his boat, said that he tested negative.
“There was no celebration. We’re just trying to keep people together and do things in a bipartisan way. That’s what we do,” Manchin said about the houseboat party, which another Senate office noted took place outdoors.
Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) were also at Manchin’s bipartisan boathouse event. Manchin estimated that roughly a dozen senators were there.
Spokespeople for Coons and Thune both said that they tested negative, while Cantwell is getting tested. Spokespeople for Kelly, Rosen and Cortez Masto said that they were following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. For fully vaccinated people, the CDC recommends they get tested three to five days after exposure and wear a mask indoors for 14 days or until they get a negative test result.
Even after the news of Graham’s positive result, most Republican senators were spotted without masks on the Senate floor during the first vote the chamber held early Monday evening.
Only a handful of GOP senators were seen wearing masks: Shelby, Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rob Portman (Ohio), Mitt Romney (Utah), Dan Sullivan (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine).
Murkowski, asked about her mask earlier Monday afternoon, appeared unaware of Graham’s positive COVID-19 result. She told reporters that she was wearing one out of respect for Washington, D.C.’s indoor masking requirement.
“I haven’t seen him, and I didn’t know that,” Murkowski said when asked about her mask. “I am wearing it because we’re in the District, and the District has imposed a mask mandate.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, said he was thinking about wearing a mask. But he also warned reporters from sensationalizing that Graham tested positive.
But Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), a member of Democratic leadership, urged all senators to wear masks and said that Democratic leadership meetings, after initially meeting in person, had gone back to Zoom.
Senate Democrats will hold their Tuesday caucus lunch virtually, an aide confirmed to The Hill. Democrats had started meeting in person again in mid-April after suspending in-person lunches for more than a year.
Spokespeople for McConnell didn’t respond to a question about the GOP’s Tuesday lunch.
The Senate is currently at the start of a days-long debate over the roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. Graham is one of 17 Republicans who have supported advancing it. If every Democrat supports it, they would need only 10 GOP senators. That could mean they don’t need his vote, and Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who supports it, returned to D.C. after being absent last week.
None of the other Republicans who have been voting for the bipartisan deal have said, so far, that they were on Manchin’s boat.
Sens. Blunt, Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) ,Bill Cassidy (La.), Susan Collins (Maine), Kevin Cramer (N.D.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Rob Portman (Ohio), Mitt Romney (Utah), Thom Tillis (N.C.), McConnell and Murkowski have all been supporting the deal so far and were not on Manchin’s boat.
Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who were key negotiators on the bipartisan deal, were also not at Manchin’s gathering.
But Graham’s absence will impact the Senate’s debate on the budget resolution that tees up Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending package. As the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, he had been expected to oversee a days-long floor debate and a chaotic vote-a-rama, where any senator who wants to force a vote can. Thune will now oversee the budget debate for Republicans.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) added that it underscored how every vote counts in a 50-50 Senate.
“I don’t know. I don’t think you can plan for all of the Republicans who voted yes … to vote yes on cloture,” he said. “Those are different votes.”
Peter Sullivan contributed. Updated at 8:05 p.m.