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House Democrats plead with key committee chairman to allow remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic

House Democrats plead with key committee chairman to allow remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic
© Aaron Schwartz

Nearly 70 House Democrats on Monday formally requested that the chamber change its rules to allow lawmakers to vote remotely during national emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic.

House members, most of whom are currently in their districts across the nation, are increasingly fearful for their safety if they have to travel back to Washington, D.C., and congregate in large groups to vote on the next economic stimulus package.

Lawmakers' fears are increasing by the day as three members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus, while more than a dozen others are self-quarantining after being exposed to their infected colleagues.

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In a letter led by Reps. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellMo Brooks accuses Swalwell attorney who served papers on his wife of trespassing Senate on collision course over Trump DOJ subpoenas Democrats weigh next steps on Jan. 6 probe MORE (D-Calif.) and Katie Porter (D-Calif.), a total of 67 Democratic lawmakers asked House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) to temporarily change the lower chamber's rules to enable remote voting.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiYoung Turks founder on Democratic establishment: 'They lie nonstop' Hillicon Valley: Senate unanimously confirms Chris Inglis as first White House cyber czar | Scrutiny mounts on Microsoft's surveillance technology | Senators unveil bill to crack down on cyber criminals 'It's still a BFD': Democrats applaud ruling upholding ObamaCare MORE (D-Calif.) last week tasked McGovern with issuing a report on House rules regarding voting. McGovern has invited fellow lawmakers to submit comments.

Democrats — including other House committee leaders such as Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn MaloneyHow ERA is good for the economy Wray suggests limits on FBI social media tracking a 'lesson learned' after Jan. 6 Trump, allies pressured DOJ to back election claims, documents show MORE (N.Y.), Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerSenate on collision course over Trump DOJ subpoenas Black Democrats press leaders for reparations vote this month House Judiciary to probe DOJ's seizure of data from lawmakers, journalists MORE (N.Y.) and Budget Committee Chairman John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthDemocrats shift tone on unemployment benefits The Hill's Morning Report - Dems to go-it-alone on infrastructure as bipartisan plan falters Democratic patience runs out on bipartisan talks MORE (Ky.) — who signed on to the letter argued that a remote voting system would ensure that lawmakers don't potentially expose each other to the coronavirus and that those in quarantine could still cast votes.

"Unfortunately, during such circumstances, requiring members to vote in person may pose public health risks or even be physically impossible for persons under quarantine. We need to provide a mechanism through which Congress can act during times of crisis without having to assemble in one place," the lawmakers wrote.

Some lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyFive takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision Environmental groups urge congressional leaders to leave climate provisions in infrastructure package Pelosi picks Democrats for special panel tackling inequality MORE (R-Calif.), have expressed skepticism about remote voting and how it would work in practice. McCarthy last week told fellow House Republicans on a conference call that issues like parliamentary motions would not necessarily be worked out so easily if done remotely.

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There's also concern that establishing an internet-based remote voting system could face security threats and potential legal challenges to bills passed under such a process. It would likely also take time to build a remote voting system when lawmakers are under pressure to move quickly to pass legislation in response to the pandemic.

But Swalwell, in the letter, pointed to discussions he's had with legal experts arguing that a remote voting system would pass muster.

The letter cited Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, pointing to the Constitution stating that "each House may determine the rules of its proceedings" and Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe stating that the Constitution "needn’t and shouldn’t be construed to preclude virtual presence any more than it had to be constituted to treat air travel or indeed email as something other than interstate commerce or electronic surveillance as less than a fourth amendment search and seizure.”

Congressional leaders are still negotiating a third economic relief package despite marathon discussions over the weekend. The legislation is expected to pass the Senate before coming to the House.

Without a remote voting system in place, House leaders have limited options without forcing all members to travel back to Washington.

The House can pass legislation by unanimous consent, which requires only one lawmaker to preside over proceedings and a handful of staff on hand. But that process requires the approval of every single House member, meaning that one lawmaker can hold up passage of a bill if they are in the chamber to object.

That happened last week when the House passed changes to the second economic stimulus bill by unanimous consent. Rep. Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller Gohmert21 Republicans vote against awarding medals to police who defended Capitol GOP's Gohmert, Clyde file lawsuit over metal detector fines Wray grilled on FBI's handling of Jan. 6 MORE (R-Texas) initially objected to its passage before conversations with GOP leaders and President TrumpDonald TrumpChinese apps could face subpoenas, bans under Biden executive order: report Kim says North Korea needs to be 'prepared' for 'confrontation' with US Ex-Colorado GOP chair accused of stealing more than 0K from pro-Trump PAC MORE.

The Senate, which is still in session, has been lengthening the time allotted for roll call votes to help reduce the number of people in the chamber at a time. But that strategy has had mixed results, as some senators continue to congregate in the chamber during votes.

So far, three members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus: Reps. Mario Diaz-BalartMario Rafael Diaz-BalartBottom line GOP lawmakers ask Biden administration for guidance on reopening cruise industry The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by Facebook — Biden delivers 100 million shots in 58 days, doses to neighbors MORE (R-Fla.) and Ben McAdams (D-Utah), and Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate confirms Biden pick for No. 2 role at Interior Rand Paul does not support a national minimum wage increase — and it's important to understand why Fauci to Chelsea Clinton: The 'phenomenal amount of hostility' I face is 'astounding' MORE (R-Ky.).

Paul, who is currently asymptomatic, had been proceeding with his usual activities in the Capitol complex until receiving his results Sunday morning.