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VERIFY: Here's how Sen. Chuck Grassley positive COVID-19 diagnosis could impact succession

The Verify team looks into the role of president pro tempore in the aftermath of Sen. Chuck Grassley's positive test for COVID-19.


On November 17, Sen. Chuck Grassley announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19. The 87-year-old is the second oldest member in the Senate behind Sen. Diane Feinstein. 

Grassley, a senator from Iowa, is currently the president pro tempore of the Senate. The Verify team is breaking down the responsibilities of this role, and how it relates to the succession order. 


Sen. Chuck Grassley, Nov. 17 Statement

United States Senate Website, President Pro Tempore

Congressional Research Service, July, 2020 Report

Resolution To Elect Chuck Grassley President Pro Tempore

What are the details of Grassley's positive test?

On his Senate website, Grassley released a statement about his positive test, saying he had learned that he was exposed to the virus on Tuesday morning. He said he immediately began to quarantine. 

"While I still feel fine," he wrote. "The test came back positive for the coronavirus. I am continuing to follow my doctors’ orders and CDC guidelines. I’ll be keeping up on my work for the people of Iowa from home. I appreciate everyone’s well wishes and prayers, and look forward to resuming my normal schedule when I can. In the meantime, my offices across Iowa and in Washington remain open and ready to serve Iowans."

When was Sen. Grassley last seen publicly at the Capitol?

Grassley was last at the Capitol on Monday, when he spoke on the Senate floor. He made a brief speech about the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he was not wearing a mask while he spoke. 

"It is critical for Iowans to step up their personal responsibilities," he said. "To stay safe and healthy for themselves and their loved ones. And that, of course, includes our tireless health care professionals, those on the front lines working to save lives."

Grassley urged his constituents to wash their hands, limit their activity outside their homes, social distance, and wear masks. 

"We're going to get through this together," he said. "But we need everyone to do their part."

The clip of his speech can be seen below. 

What does the president pro tempore of the Senate do?

The president pro tempore of the Senate is a constitutionally mandated position, in which the selected Senator is required to "preside over the Senate in the absence of the Vice President."

The United States Senate website explains that the president pro tempore of the Senate is the third in line for the presidency, following the vice president and the House Speaker. 

According to the Senate website, "pro tempore" is a Latin term meaning 'for the time being.' For much of early American history, the job of this Senator was to take over leadership of the Senate when the vice president was unavailable. 

"Since vice presidents presided routinely in the 18th and 19th centuries," the website read. "The Senate thought it necessary to choose a president pro tempore only for the limited periods when the vice president might be ill or otherwise absent. As a result the Senate frequently elected several presidents pro tempore during a single season." 

In modern times, the role of the vice president has changed. The VP is much less likely to preside over the Senate, which has meant an enlarged role for the president pro tempore. These days, the president pro tempore holds their position until the election of a successor. 

"Since 1890, with a single exception," the Senate website reads. "Each president pro tempore has served until he retired, died, or had the misfortune to see his party lose its majority."

In modern times, it has been traditional for the Senate to "elect the senior member of the majority party" to the position. 

There are some perks to the position.

 Since 1816, the president pro tempore has received a larger salary than other senators. Since 1820, this position also gives the Senator the power to name other senators to perform the duties of the chair in his absence. In modern times, the president pro tempore has tended to ask new members of the majority party to preside over the Senate, according to the U.S. Senate website.