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 PelosiPelosi calls for investigation into reports of mistreatment of pregnant women in DHS custody Wisconsin highlights why states need a bipartisan plan that doesn't include Democrats federalizing elections Pelosi defends push for mail-in voting: GOP 'afraid' to let people vote 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: Coronavirus tracking sparks surveillance concerns | Target delivery workers plan Tuesday walkout | Federal agency expedites mail-in voting funds to states | YouTube cracks down on 5G conspiracy videos House Republican pushes for bipartisan cooperation on elections during coronavirus crisis Hillicon Valley: FCC chief proposes 0M telehealth program | Twitter takes down posts promoting anti-malaria drugs for coronavirus| Whole Foods workers plan Tuesday strike MORE (D-Calif.) is also preparing a memo on resources for tele-conferencing, Pelosi said.

Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Former Trump advisor Bossert says to test the well, not ill; Senate standoff on next relief bill McCarthy slams Democrats on funding for mail-in balloting Harris, Ocasio-Cortez among Democrats calling for recurring direct payments in fourth coronavirus bill 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-BalartFlorida Republican becomes sixth member of Congress to test positive for coronavirus Rep. McAdams now 'virus-free' after tough battle with coronavirus Bottom Line 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-PowellCoral Princess cruise ship with cases of coronavirus docks in Miami Florida gov says if White House recommended stay-at-home order it would 'carry a lot of weight' Holdout governors face pressure to issue stay-at-home orders 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 GohmertTop conservatives pen letter to Trump with concerns on fourth coronavirus relief bill Lysol, disinfecting wipes and face masks mark coronavirus vote in House The Hill's 12:30 Report: What we know about T stimulus deal 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 TrumpSanders says he wouldn't 'drop dead' if Trump decided on universal healthcare Overnight Health Care: Trump officials lay groundwork for May reopening | Democrats ramp up talks with Mnuchin on next relief deal | Fauci says death toll could be around 60,000 Hillicon Valley: State officials push for more election funds | Coronavirus surveillance concerns ramp up pressure for privacy bill | Senators warned not to use Zoom | Agencies ask FCC to revoke China Telecom's license 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 HoyerLobbying world Procedural politics: What just happened with the coronavirus bill? DC argues it is shortchanged by coronavirus relief 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 McCarthySenators, bipartisan state officials press Congress for more election funds Pelosi defends push for mail-in voting: GOP 'afraid' to let people vote McCarthy slams Democrats on funding for mail-in balloting MORE (R-Calif.), however, remains skeptical of remote voting. Rep. Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikBottom line Overnight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill Lawmakers press IRS to get coronavirus checks to seniors MORE (R-N.Y.) and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyHouse GOP leaders back effort to boost small-business loans Scott Gottlieb becomes key voice warning Trump, GOP on coronavirus Self-quarantined New York lawmaker: 'We should be in total lockdown' 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 SwalwellKey House chairman cautions against remote voting, suggests other options amid coronavirus outbreak House Democrats plead with key committee chairman to allow remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic Congress tiptoes toward remote voting MORE (D-Calif.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Van TaylorNicholas (Van) Van Campen TaylorCongress tiptoes toward remote voting House Republicans oppose remote voting during crisis House GOP criticizes impeachment drive as distracting from national security issues 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 DurbinSenate 'unlikely' to return on April 20, top GOP senator says Durbin: Bringing senators back in two weeks would be 'dangerous and risky' How the Senate should implement remote voting in emergencies MORE (D-Ill.), the second-ranking Senate Democrat, and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenate 'unlikely' to return on April 20, top GOP senator says Phase-four virus relief hits a wall GOP senator to donate 2 months of salary in coronavirus fight 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.