Congress tiptoes toward remote voting

Congress tiptoes toward remote voting
© Greg Nash

Congressional leaders are considering ways to allow lawmakers to vote on legislation without requiring them all to congregate together in the Capitol now that at least two members have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Breaking down the June jobs report | The biggest threats facing the recovery | What will the next stimulus bill include? Military bases should not be renamed, we must move forward in the spirit of reconciliation Pelosi: Trump 'himself is a hoax' MORE (D-Calif.) announced Thursday that she has instructed House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) to present a report on the chamber’s rules regarding voting for members to review and is accepting suggestions from fellow Democrats.

McGovern's report outlining House procedures may not necessarily make an explicit call for remote voting, but Pelosi's announcement is a sign of how leadership is under pressure to allay lawmakers' fears that business as usual in the Capitol could potentially expose them to the coronavirus.

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House Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenFEC commissioner resigns, leaving agency without a quorum again OVERNIGHT ENERGY: DOJ whistleblower says California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' | EPA won't defend policy blocking grantees from serving on boards | Minnesota sues Exxon, others over climate change DOJ whistleblower: California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' MORE (D-Calif.) is also preparing a memo on resources for tele-conferencing, Pelosi said.

Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPublic awareness campaigns will protect the public during COVID-19 Democrats: A moment in history, use it wisely 'Comrade' Trump gets 'endorsement' from Putin in new mock ad by Lincoln Project MORE (R-Ky.) had both initially expressed opposition to the idea of remote voting, although they have weighed social distancing measures on the House and Senate floors to follow health officials’ guidelines to limit groups to 10 or less. 

But lawmakers worried about having to travel on airplanes or trains and coming into contact with each other warn that’s not enough. 

And the threat is hitting closer to home for lawmakers now that two of their own — Reps. Mario Diaz-BalartMario Rafael Diaz-BalartPelosi asks House chairs to enforce mandatory mask-wearing during hearings House GOP lawmaker tests positive for COVID-19 The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Association of American Railroads Ian Jefferies says no place for hate, racism or bigotry in rail industry or society; Trump declares victory in response to promising jobs report MORE (R-Fla.) and Ben McAdams (D-Utah) — announced that they contracted the virus.

“In. Person. Voting. Should. Be. Reconsidered. For the safety of our communities, during this emergency, we must be able to legislate from our districts,” Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-PowellDebbie Mucarsel-PowellDemocrats start cracking down on masks for lawmakers The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Former Rep. Delaney says Trump is spewing venom when he should be leading; Protests roil the nation as fears of new virus outbreaks grow Gun control group rolls out House endorsements MORE (D-Fla.) tweeted after the two lawmakers announced Wednesday night within hours of each other that they had the coronavirus.

McAdams also called for changing House rules so that members could vote remotely under the current circumstances.

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“I think we need to consider changing that under certain provisions,” he told NBC’s “Today” show on Thursday as he self-quarantined at home in Utah. “I think there's value in having, outside of the national emergency that we’re in, having members of Congress come together and talk about bills before they vote on them. But perhaps under the state of a declared national emergency, that’s something that should be available to the Congress.”

McConnell shot down the idea of remote voting earlier this week, saying that “there are a number of different ways to avoid getting too many people together.”

In recent days, the Senate has lengthened the time allotted for votes to help stagger the number of senators on the floor at any given time.

Similar social distancing measures could be taken in the House if members are called back to Washington from their districts. But House Democratic leaders told rank-and-file members on a conference call on Thursday that they are reviewing ways to allow for remote voting or passing bills by unanimous consent, aides said.

The House opted to use the unanimous consent process earlier this week with changes to an economic stimulus package ensuring that people can take paid leave during the coronavirus crisis. That only requires a few staff members and a lawmaker to preside over proceedings.

But using unanimous consent to pass bills can stall if a single lawmaker is on hand in the chamber to object. On Monday, Rep. Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertGOP-Trump fractures on masks open up Democrats start cracking down on masks for lawmakers Justice Department officials say decisions are politicized MORE (R-Texas) initially threatened to block passage of the economic relief package but later withdrew his objections following conversations with GOP leaders and President TrumpDonald John Trump Trump responds to calls to tear down monuments with creation of 'National Garden' of statues Trump: Children are taught in school to 'hate their own country' Trump accuses those tearing down statues of wanting to 'overthrow the American Revolution' MORE.

House leaders encountered a similar problem last year when a series of GOP lawmakers blocked attempts to pass a disaster aid package by unanimous consent.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse to vote on removing bust of Supreme Court justice who wrote Dred Scott ruling Black Caucus unveils next steps to combat racism Democrats expect Russian bounties to be addressed in defense bill MORE (D-Md.) told Democrats during the Thursday call that it’s possible that the next coronavirus aid package could be done by unanimous consent once the Senate sends it over, but acknowledged that it is “unlikely.” 

"I share the concerns of many members regarding the number of members on the House Floor at any one time. I therefore expect that the House will adjust our voting procedures in order to follow the CDC’s recommendations. No decisions have been made on exactly what these changes will be, but we will be discussing all options," Hoyer wrote in a letter to colleagues ahead of the call.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyOn The Money: Breaking down the June jobs report | The biggest threats facing the recovery | What will the next stimulus bill include? McCarthy to offer bill withholding funds from states that don't protect statues McCarthy calls on Pelosi to condemn 'mob violence' after toppling of St. Junipero Serra statue MORE (R-Calif.), however, remains skeptical of remote voting. Rep. Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Fauci 'aspirationally hopeful' of a vaccine by winter Pentagon: 'No corroborating evidence' yet to validate troop bounty allegations Overnight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police MORE (R-N.Y.) and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump lays low as approval hits 18-month low House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday MORE (Wyo.) also advocated for members to vote remotely during a Thursday GOP conference call. But according to sources on the call, McCarthy indicated that it's not currently feasible and questioned how remote voting would handle things like parliamentary motions.

The prospect of remote voting comes as a growing number of lawmakers enter self-quarantine after being exposed to people later diagnosed with the coronavirus — while still others could contract the disease themselves.

Several lawmakers — including Republicans who serve on the House GOP whip team with Diaz-Balart — are now self-quarantining after coming into close contact late last week with their infected colleagues.

Those members won’t be able to travel if the Senate sends another economic stimulus package to the House in the coming days, meaning they would miss any floor votes. 

“I am home at least for two weeks. And the few members that I had contact with in that period probably should be quarantined as well. And so it does place a limit on the ability of Congress to get stuff done right now,” McAdams said in the “Today” interview.

Even before McAdams and Diaz-Balart’s cases became known, lawmakers in both parties were already worried about having to travel back to Washington from their districts and cast votes in large crowds on the House floor.

In a letter spearheaded by Reps. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellSwalwell: Trump 'makes us look like geniuses every day for impeaching him' Voters must strongly reject the president's abuses by voting him out this November Democrats face tough questions with Bolton MORE (D-Calif.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Van TaylorNicholas (Van) Van Campen TaylorFormer Texas Rep. Sam Johnson dies at 89 House GOP urge Trump against supporting additional funding for state and local governments Congress tiptoes toward remote voting MORE (R-Texas) to Pelosi and McCarthy this week, lawmakers called for changing House rules to allow for remote voting so that no one would be impeded by quarantines or potential travel restrictions.

“Adopting rules today for the House to allow remote voting, as necessary, will allow every member to continue to vote and represent the concerns of their constituents as we address this crisis,” they wrote.

“We in Congress are asking businesses, schools and local governments to execute strong plans to ensure continuity of operations. Congress should be no exception,” they added.

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Senators — who are in Washington this week crafting a third bill to help boost the economy reeling from the coronavirus impact — are also nervous about having to keep traveling back and forth from their home states.

Sens. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinHillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats Overnight Defense: Democrats blast Trump handling of Russian bounty intel | Pentagon leaders set for House hearing July 9 | Trump moves forward with plan for Germany drawdown Democrats, voting rights groups pressure Senate to approve mail-in voting resources MORE (D-Ill.), the second-ranking Senate Democrat, and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic proposal to extend 0 unemployment checks Senate Democrats offer plan to extend added jobless benefits during pandemic Senators press IRS chief on stimulus check pitfalls MORE (R-Ohio) introduced a resolution on Thursday that would allow senators to vote remotely in the event of a national crisis. The ability to vote remotely would have to be renewed every 30 days under their proposal.

“We need to bring voting in the Senate into the 21st century so that our important work can continue even under extraordinary circumstances,” Durbin said.

Juliegrace Brufke contributed. Updated at 6:52 p.m.