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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 PelosiHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike Budget Committee chair pledges to raise minimum wage: 'Hold me to it' Capitol review to recommend adding more fencing, 1,000 officers: report 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 LofgrenCurator estimates Capitol art damage from mob totals K Architect of the Capitol considering display on Jan. 6 riot Lawmakers say they are 'targets,' ask to boost security MORE (D-Calif.) is also preparing a memo on resources for tele-conferencing, Pelosi said.

Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump at CPAC foments 2022 GOP primary wars Hawley gets boisterous ovation at CPAC for Electoral College objection   Why Congress must invoke the 14th Amendment now 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 Republicans push Biden to implement Trump order on Venezuela Here are the three GOP lawmakers who voted for the Equality Act 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-PowellTrump, Florida complicate Biden approach to Cuba The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Coast-to-coast fears about post-holiday COVID-19 spread The Memo: Democrats see warning signs beyond 2020 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 GohmertNIH director: Mask politicalization may have cost 'tens of thousands' of lives in US Democrats should make the 'Bee-Gees' the face of the Republican Party GOP lawmakers call for Pelosi to be fined over new screenings 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 TrumpBiden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot Trump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged 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 set for tight vote on COVID-19 relief package Key Democrat unveils plan to restore limited earmarks Overnight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission 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 McCarthyHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike Trump at CPAC foments 2022 GOP primary wars McCarthy: No commitment from Trump to not target Republicans MORE (R-Calif.), however, remains skeptical of remote voting. Rep. Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikHere are the three GOP lawmakers who voted for the Equality Act Cuomo job approval drops 6 points amid nursing home controversy: poll House Democrats request documents from DHS intelligence office about Jan. 6 attack MORE (R-N.Y.) and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyTrump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged Tomi Lahren says CPAC attendees clearly want Trump to run in 2024 Trump at CPAC foments 2022 GOP primary wars 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 SwalwellThe Memo: New riot footage stuns Trump trial New security video shows lawmakers fleeing during Capitol riot Newly released footage shows Schumer's 'near miss' with Capitol rioters MORE (D-Calif.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Van TaylorVan TaylorSix ways to visualize a divided America House approves rules package for new Congress House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit 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 DurbinPartisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission Murkowski undecided on Tanden as nomination in limbo Democrats ask FBI for plans to address domestic extremism following Capitol attack MORE (D-Ill.), the second-ranking Senate Democrat, and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGrassley to vote against Tanden nomination Murkowski undecided on Tanden as nomination in limbo Biden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers 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.