WASHINGTON—The first U.S. senator tested positive for the novel coronavirus Sunday and two more entered self-quarantine as a precaution, raising questions about the ability of Congress to continue meeting as it races to pass a crucial economic rescue package.
Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) tested positive on Sunday morning, his staff said, adding that he is in quarantine and isn’t experiencing symptoms. Two of his Republican colleagues, Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney of Utah, then began a 14-day self-quarantine.
The Kentucky Republican’s diagnosis comes as Congress and the White House are racing to pass legislation to combat the business and household impact of the pandemic. It also underscores questions about how legislators on Capitol Hill should operate without putting themselves at risk.
“Senators, as a rule, tend to be a little bit older, so senators are at an increased risk for complications,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R., La.), a gastroenterologist, said Sunday. “Whenever we’re through with our business, we should do what every other American is being asked to do, which is to shelter in place.”
Republicans have a 53-47 majority in the Senate as it negotiates an emergency coronavirus stimulus package worth an estimated $1.5 trillion, but now at least five GOP senators have entered quarantine, including Sens. Paul, Lee, and Romney.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R., Colo.) is in self-quarantine until March 24 after meeting with a constituent who later tested positive for the virus, and Sen. Rick Scott (R., Fla.) will end self-quarantine on Monday after meeting with a Brazilian official who tested positive for Covid-19.
That leaves Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell short several votes in his caucus on Sunday. And it could make it harder for him to secure the three-fifths of the votes needed for a key procedural vote expected Sunday night, and strengthens Democrats’ hand in final stage negotiations.
The top four congressional leaders, led by Mr. McConnell (R., Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), met Sunday to negotiate a stimulus package to tide businesses and workers over amid the nationwide effort to contain the coronavirus spread. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Sunday he expects a vote on the legislation Monday.
Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran told his Republican colleagues at a closed-door lunch on Sunday, when the news broke that Mr. Paul had tested positive, that he saw Mr. Paul at the Senate gym this morning and that Mr. Paul was also in the pool, two people familiar with the matter said. Multiple Republican senators indicated at the lunch that they had been in close contact with the Kentucky senator in the past 72 hours, one of the people said.
It was wasn’t immediately known whether Mr. Paul was awaiting the results of his coronavirus test when he went to the gym and the pool, and his press office didn’t respond to emails about it. In a tweet, his staff said Mr. Paul left the Capitol immediately after learning of his positive test.
Mr. Lee’s office said his quarantine is precautionary “given the timing, proximity and duration” of his exposure to Mr. Paul, but since he has no symptoms or other risk factors he will not be tested for the virus.
Mr. Romney sat next to Mr. Paul for extended periods in recent days, and Congress’s attending physician has ordered him to self-quarantine and not vote on the Senate floor, his office said, adding that he has no symptoms but will be tested.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.), who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, said he didn’t think that the body should recess in light of Mr. Paul’s diagnosis. He said individual members would know whether they have had much contact with Mr. Paul in the past week. “And I don’t believe it changes our posture,” he said.
But when informed by reporters that Mr. Paul had attended lunch with the GOP Senate caucus on Friday, Mr. Blunt said, “We’re going to need a little better medical advice than we have on this right now.”
Sen. John Thune (R., SD), the Senate’s No. 2-ranking Republican, said on the Senate floor Sunday afternoon that “thoughts and prayers” were with Mr. Paul for a speedy recovery.
“We’ll consult with the attending physician at the Capitol about appropriate measures for those who have been in contact with the senator,” he said. “But this is the kind of situation that Americans across the country are dealing with right now and it underscores the importance of acting immediately to deliver more relief for the American people.”
Mr. Paul, a staunch fiscal conservative, is known for objecting to government spending measures and often insists on amendment votes to legislation that nearly always fails. He did so most recently last week, delaying for several days a Senate vote on a bill that, among other things, provided free coronavirus testing.
“We absolutely must, must resist government runs amok taking advantage of a crisis. This is how your liberty dies,” Mr. Paul tweeted on Saturday evening.
Asked whether Mr. Paul’s diagnosis would alter the prospects of the Senate’s current bill, Sen. Lindsey Graham said, “I don’t think anybody was looking to Rand to get us over the top.”
Mr. Paul is the first senator and third member of Congress to test positive for the novel coronavirus. Last Wednesday, two House lawmakers, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.) and Rep. Ben McAdams (D., Utah), were diagnosed.
Mr. Diaz-Balart told NBC News on Saturday night that the symptoms of Covid-19 “pretty much hit me like a ton of bricks.”
President Trump said on Sunday that he is supportive of Congress voting remotely in certain circumstances.
“I would certainly be in favor of it, where they could vote from an outside location,” he told reporters at the White House Sunday night, adding that he understands the importance of voting in person.
The president also sent well wishes to Messrs. Paul and Diaz-Balart. Mr. Trump said the virus is “getting quite close to home and it’s a terrible thing that’s going on,” though he predicted that the lawmakers would recover.
As for Mr. Romney, an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump who announced on Sunday that he was self-quarantining, Mr. Trump said: “Romney is in isolation? Gee, that’s too bad.”
—Natalie Andrews contributed to this article.