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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 PelosiGovernors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation 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 LofgrenHillicon Valley: Four major tech issues facing the Biden administration | Pressure grows to reinstate White House cyber czar | Facebook, Google to extend political ad bans House report says lawmakers could securely cast remote votes amid pandemic Why prevailing wage reform matters for H-1B visas MORE (D-Calif.) is also preparing a memo on resources for tele-conferencing, Pelosi said.

Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellAs Biden administration ramps up, Trump legal effort drags on Harris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year 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-BalartHouse Hispanic Republicans welcome four new members GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse tests positive for COVID-19 Colorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter tests positive for coronavirus 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-PowellThe Memo: Democrats see warning signs beyond 2020 Florida Democrat breaks down loss: 'It's not just about socialism' Rundown of the House seats Democrats, GOP flipped on Election Day 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 GohmertCapitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse tests positive for COVID-19 Colorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter tests positive for coronavirus 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 TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation 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 HoyerDemocrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus Hoyer on Trump election challenges: 'I think this borders on treason' Capitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview 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 McCarthyTop Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon Richmond says GOP 'reluctant to stand up and tell the emperor he wears no clothes' Sunday shows preview: Biden transition, COVID-19 spike in spotlight MORE (R-Calif.), however, remains skeptical of remote voting. Rep. Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikGovernors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Cuomo reverses on in-person Thanksgiving plans with family Women of both parties must seize the momentum MORE (R-N.Y.) and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyPressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win Trump: Liz Cheney's election remarks sparked by push to bring US troops home Biden's lead over Trump surpasses 6M votes as more ballots are tallied 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 SwalwellJuan Williams: Defeated Trump is in legal peril Taylor Swift allows song to be used in campaign ad Graham says SC people of color can go anywhere in the state but 'need to be conservative, not liberal' MORE (D-Calif.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Van TaylorVan TaylorVan Taylor wins reelection to Texas seat held by GOP since 1968 Live updates: Democrats seek to extend House advantage Biden pushes into Trump territory 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 DurbinDick DurbinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight Whitehouse says Democratic caucus will decide future of Judiciary Committee MORE (D-Ill.), the second-ranking Senate Democrat, and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanBiden says transition outreach from Trump administration has been 'sincere' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump holds his last turkey pardon ceremony The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience 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.