Hours into the return of a face mask requirement in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) threw a mask at a Democratic staffer, a Democrat and a Republican got in several shouting matches about the Republican’s vaccination status off the House floor, and the Speaker of the House called her GOP counterpart a “moron” for criticizing the mask guidance.
And that was all before lunch.
Later on in the day, Democrats continued to stoke the fire by lobbing social media bombs at their mask-resistant GOP colleagues. “Tired of their lame asses,” tweeted Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI).
Republicans, meanwhile, grilled the Capitol’s top physician over why he advised a return to the masking requirement. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) came to his own conclusion: that the decision was motivated by Democrats’ desire to “keep you living in fear with your mask, even if you’ve been vaccinated.”
In the process of making that argument, he also managed to throw in a suggestion that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is corrupt.
As public health authorities and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dust off mask mandates amid the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19, members of Congress might—theoretically—be expected to model good behavior at a challenging time for the nation.
But 16 months of corrosive, pandemic politics have rendered the U.S. Capitol a uniquely toxic environment when it comes to COVID precautions. It’s especially the case in the House, where virus skeptics and conspiracists in the GOP flaunted and mocked public health guidance even as dozens of their colleagues fell sick—or even died—from the virus, poisoning relationships with Democrats and turning the chamber into the physical equivalent of an angry Facebook comment thread.
So when the mask requirement returned after a brief, post-vaccine respite, the conditions were ripe for a successive series of dramatic blow-ups and raw expressions of anger and disbelief. It made for an ironic splitscreen on Capitol Hill: as the Senate closed in on a landmark bipartisan infrastructure deal, House members berated each other and Republicans ground the chamber to a halt in protest.
Boebert, a hard-right freshman Republican, began the day by flinging a mask at a staffer who offered her one on the House floor, according to a person who witnessed the exchange. The congresswoman later posted on Twitter about a “Democrat staffer who tried to hand me that face muzzle” and deployed a GIF from the Pixar film Monsters, Inc. to endorse the rejection of masks.
Then, Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) gave an outraged speech on the House floor—sans mask—in which he vowed to “shut this place down” if the requirement stood. “It's an embarrassment, a mockery, and the American people are fed up, they want to go back to life… We are absolutely sick and tired of this, and so are the American people.”
Roy subsequently forced a vote on adjourning the House—the procedural equivalent of pulling the fire alarm in high school—a stunt that was later replicated by Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA), gumming up the workings of the House for the morning.
There’s support for that general idea among Roy’s colleagues. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) arrived at the House floor and was overheard by The Daily Beast telling a Democratic colleague that he wanted to oppose any bipartisan piece of legislation as long as the “childish” mask mandate stood.
Democrats say they don’t want to go back to masks, either. But after a year of dutiful adherence to mask rules, they say it’s a small protective measure to adopt at this point—and they blame unvaccinated COVID skeptics for dragging pandemic progress backward and forcing the move.
That anger was enough to compel one Democrat, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), to personally confront Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) during votes on Wednesday morning. Donalds, a freshman Republican who previously said on cable news that he had declined the vaccine due to past COVID infection, walked to the floor unmasked.
Huffman refused to get into an elevator with Donalds. A moment later, outside the House floor, Huffman yelled at Donalds that he was “selfish.” Donalds shot back to Huffman, “mind your business!” as aides, reporters, and lawmakers stood nearby, taken aback at the scene. The two later continued their verbal scuffle outside on the House steps, and then kept trading blows on Twitter for good measure.
Huffman, who’d tweeted earlier in the day that he expected Republicans to “throw tantrums” over the guidance, may have gone further than most of his colleagues would have, but he was far from the only one tired of putting up with some Republicans’ resistance to masking and vaccines—even those who pride themselves on bipartisan outreach.
“None of us are happy with having to wear masks,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. “And if more Americans would get vaccinated and listen to science instead of conspiracy theorists—including certain Members of Congress—we could save lives, improve our economy, and probably not be subject to such requirements.”
Phillips told The Daily Beast he was deeply concerned for the steadily eroding environment of collegiality in the House. “The lack of basic human decency being exhibited in the House is a stain on our country,” he said in a text message. “Simple solution: WEAR YOUR FRICKIN MASK like the rest of us.”
Donalds, for his part, said the problem was that Democrats weren’t respecting his position—even if the position was concerning the risk of contagious disease.
“That’s the issue that we’re having, people aren’t respecting other people’s position, and that’s a problem for our country,” Donalds said. “When people get upset and get tense, then arbitrariness and foolishness rules the day.”
For those caught in the middle, there was little else to do but soak in the bad vibes. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), an early vaccine proponent who was wearing a mask off the House floor, didn’t have much vitriol to offer toward Democrats or anyone.
“I’m sad, just to see the re-emergence of COVID nationwide,” Fleischmann said. “I thought we were over it. It’s just a bit depressing.”