The remarks by King and others underscore the pressures facing lawmakers as the U.S. remains seriously short of the amount of testing experts consider necessary. Many members of Congress face higher risks because they're older and travel often, but they're also loathe to be seen as getting special access to a scarce resource.
“It’s totally responsible to have tests, not just to protect us but to protect all the other people that are involved in that travel,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. He said lawmakers and congressional staff should be tested, but without “taking resources away from other people.”
On Tuesday, Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate health committee, said that with more testing becoming available, he expected “attitudes to change quickly” about the decision to rebuff the White House offer of tests. Alexander, R-Tenn., said lawmakers' travel back and forth to Washington “creates a highly efficient virus spreading machine.”
One senator and seven House members have reported testing positive for the disease. At least 19 congressional employees, including eight Capitol Police officers, have also tested positive, according to a letter last week by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Despite assurances by President Donald Trump that the U.S. had all the testing it needs, public health experts say the country is far short of the tests needed to detect and control fresh outbreaks. The virus is continuing to spread across the country, with over 1.2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, and more than 72,000 deaths.
While more and faster tests are becoming available, many doctors' offices and labs have been overwhelmed by demand and long backlogs have been common. A gradual reopening of businesses in some states is likely to increase infections and exacerbate the problem.
Last Friday night — two days before the Senate returned to Washington for the first time in weeks — Health Secretary Alex Azar tweeted that the White House was sending 1,000 tests to the Capitol. Early Saturday, Trump tweeted that there was “tremendous” testing capacity available and said the Senate would be sent a test from Abbott Laboratories that he said produces results in five minutes.
But the next day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., turned aside the offer in a rare joint statement. "Congress wants to keep directing resources to the front-line facilities where they can do the most good the most quickly,” they said.
Trump responded that lawmakers rejected the tests due to “politics” and added a swipe at Pelosi, tweeting, “ Crazy Nancy will use it as an excuse not to show up to work!” The House, which is much larger than the Senate, is not returning to Washington until at least next week.
McConnell and Pelosi have not changed their minds about declining the White House's tests, aides said. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and their aides are routinely tested for the virus, as are visitors who come in contact with them.
Brian Monahan, Congress' official doctor, has told lawmakers in briefings that he has “sufficient” tests to use for people showing COVID-19 symptoms, said a senior House Democratic aide. Estimates vary but doctors believe significant numbers of people with the disease show no symptoms but are capable of infecting others.
Monahan has not said how many tests there are. Those tests involve obtaining a sample with a swab and mailing it to a lab, with the results available in two or three days, said the aide, who revealed the details only on condition of anonymity.