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Senate ditches dress code as Fetterman and others choose casual clothes

Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., walks to a vote on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The stuffy Senate is now a bit less formal.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday that staff for the chamber’s Sergeant-at-Arms — the Senate's official clothes police — will no longer enforce a dress code on the Senate floor. The change comes after Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman has been unapologetically wearing shorts as he goes about his duties, voting from doorways so he doesn’t get in trouble for his more casual attire.

“There has been an informal dress code that was enforced,” Schumer said in a statement. “Senators are able to choose what they wear on the Senate floor. I will continue to wear a suit.”

Schumer did not mention Fetterman in his statement about the dress code, which will only apply to senators, not staff.

The changes prompted outrage from some of the chamber’s more formal members, eroding a bit of the good will that first-term Fetterman had earned earlier this year when he checked himself into the hospital for clinical depression. He won bipartisan praise for being honest about his diagnosis, which came in the wake of a stroke he suffered on the campaign trail last year. When he returned from treatment, he started donning the more casual clothes, which he says make him more comfortable.

Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall, a Republican, said it’s a “sad day in the Senate” and that the people who Fetterman and Schumer represent should be embarrassed.

“I represent the people of Kansas, and much like when I get dressed up to go to a wedding, it’s to honor the bride and groom, you go to a funeral you get dressed up to honor the family of the deceased,” Marshall said. Senators should have a certain level of decorum, he added.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine agreed, arguing that the relaxed rules debase the institution of the Senate. “I plan to wear a bikini tomorrow to the Senate floor,” Collins joked.

Walking to Monday evening’s vote in a short-sleeved button-down shirt and shorts, Fetterman said he wasn’t sure if he’d take advantage of the new rules just yet.

“It’s nice to have the option, but I’m going to plan to be using it sparingly and not really overusing it,” he said.

Asked about the criticism, Fetterman feigned mock outrage.

“They’re freaking out, I don’t understand it,” he said of his critics. “Like, aren’t there more important things we should be working on right now instead of, you know, that I might be dressing like a slob?”

When Fetterman reached the Senate floor, he still voted from the doorway. “Baby steps,” he told reporters as he got on the elevator to go back to his office.

Not all Republicans were upset about the change. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley was wearing jeans, boots and no tie on Monday evening, an outfit he says he normally wears when he flies in from his home state for the first votes of the week.

“Now I can vote from the Senate floor on Mondays,” Hawley said, noting that he usually wears a suit and tie every other day.

Nearby, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy was also tieless. The Democrat said he’s been reprimanded by Sergeant-at-Arms staff in the past for not wearing a tie on the floor.

“They would tell us when we were doing it wrong,” Murphy said.

It’s unclear if the rules for more formal attire were actually written down anywhere, but Schumer’s directive means that staff will no longer scold senators for their choice of clothing or ask them to vote from the doorway.

For Fetterman, his signature hoodies and gym shorts were a sign of his recovery. Before he checked himself into the hospital, his staff had asked him to always wear suits, which he famously hates. But after a check with the Senate parliamentarian upon his return in April, it became clear that he could continue wearing the casual clothes that were often his uniform back at home in Pennsylvania, as long as he didn’t walk on to the Senate floor. He still wears suits to committee meetings when they are required.

In recent weeks, the Pennsylvania senator has become more comfortable joking around in the hallways and answering reporters’ questions. His words are still halting sometimes due to his stroke and an auditory processing disorder that makes it harder to speak fluidly and process spoken conversation. He uses iPads and iPhones in conversations that transcribe spoken words in real time.

“I think we should all want to be more comfortable,” Fetterman told a group of reporters on Monday. “And now we have that option, and if people prefer to wear a suit, then that’s great.”

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Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.