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Democrats eye remote voting options

Democrats eye remote voting options
© Greg Nash

House Democrats are weighing their options for how to avoid needing lawmakers to travel back to the Capitol and risk exposing each other to the coronavirus while finding a way to pass the next economic stimulus package.

With three members of Congress having tested positive for the coronavirus and more than a dozen others self-quarantining, lawmakers are increasingly fearful of getting on planes and congregating together in the Capitol to vote on legislation.

Congressional leaders and the Trump administration were still trying to nail down a deal on a third stimulus bill as of Tuesday evening. Senate passage of the bill — which lawmakers hope will happen within the next few days — will then kick the onus over to the House, which won’t have much time to figure out how it will conduct a vote.

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House leaders believe that the easiest option would be to pass the legislation by unanimous consent, but there’s the risk of a single lawmaker in either party derailing that option if he or she shows up in the chamber to object.

“My hope is that while we’re in the red zone here that we get across the finish line and that we do so in a way we can bring our bill to the floor under unanimous consent,” 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.) told MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” on Tuesday.

The House also turned to unanimous consent during the 1918 flu pandemic, which sickened enough members that the chamber lacked a quorum. Lawmakers at the time eventually agreed to consider a bill to bolster the Public Health Service using a unanimous consent agreement under which no one demanded a quorum call. The bill later passed without objection, according to the House historian.

But a House vote last week to adopt by unanimous consent “corrections” to a previous economic stimulus bill the chamber had passed showed the challenges of that process. Conservative 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 objected to its passage by unanimous consent, although he ultimately relented later in the day after talks with GOP leaders.

House leaders have drawn up a handful of other options if they can’t secure unanimous consent to pass the next legislative package designed to ease the economic turmoil resulting from the coronavirus.

House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) released a report on Monday night outlining potential alternatives like proxy voting or “paired voting” that would eliminate the need for all members to be physically present in the chamber.

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Proxy voting — which has precedent in House and Senate committees — would allow an absent member to authorize another member physically present in the chamber to cast a vote on their behalf. That would ensure that any lawmakers who are sick with the coronavirus, currently self-quarantining or otherwise unable to travel could still ensure their votes are counted.

The report released by McGovern floated the idea that absent lawmakers could communicate their votes to their respective party leadership, who could then verbally cast those votes on their behalf in a roll call vote on the House floor.

At the same time, any lawmaker wanting to vote in person or express opposition to legislation could still do so without necessarily impeding its passage.

But proxy voting would require a change to the House rules, which would need the cooperation of Republicans in order to be done without a roll call vote.

Paired voting, which is already permitted under House rules, allows for informal agreements between members of opposite parties to both abstain from a given vote and effectively cancel out each other’s absences. But utilizing that now with hundreds of members away from the Capitol would require extensive coordination between the two parties.

Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeHouse report says lawmakers could securely cast remote votes amid pandemic Next Congress expected to have record diversity Native Americans elected to Congress in record numbers this year MORE (Okla.), the top Republican on the House Rules Committee, appeared to leave his options open in a statement that praised the “research and analysis” in the report unveiled by McGovern while neither endorsing nor rejecting any of its proposals.

“I very much appreciate the research and analysis that went into creating the report released by Rules Chairman Jim McGovern. It thoughtfully explores possible ways to carry on the people’s work, protect the health of members and preserve tradition. However, enacting any potential changes to current practice and precedent must not only be carefully considered but completely bipartisan,” Cole said.

During a House Democratic conference call on Tuesday, McGovern talked up the idea of proxy voting if unanimous consent isn’t possible and said it seems to be an option that Republicans are amenable to collaborating on, according to a source on the call.

If there’s no way to avoid calling all members back to Washington, the House could follow the Senate’s practice in the last week to extend the amount of time allotted for floor votes to help reduce the number of people in the chamber at once. But lawmakers — many of whom are age 65 or older and may be more vulnerable to the coronavirus — hope to avoid doing that if they can.

Dozens of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in recent weeks have called for a remote voting system. But the report from McGovern concluded that it was “not realistic” to quickly get a secure and reliable remote voting system up and running amid a pandemic crisis. And given the unprecedented nature of a remote voting system for Congress, there’s concern that any bill passed that way — let alone a trillion-dollar emergency stimulus bill — could face legal challenges.

“There are serious constitutional, technological and security concerns about it,” Pelosi said in the MSNBC interview. “And none of those systems work unless you practice, practice, practice to make sure it works.”

But lawmakers are becoming increasingly anxious about finding ways to vote on major bills to address the coronavirus pandemic without repeatedly relying on the unanimous consent process, which is typically reserved for noncontroversial legislation.

And the third economic stimulus package currently being negotiated likely won’t be the last as the global fallout from the coronavirus pandemic continues in the coming weeks.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerTop Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon Democratic impeachment leaders blast Trump's pardon of Flynn Democrats accuse GSA of undermining national security by not certifying Biden win MORE (D-N.Y.) suggested during Tuesday’s Democratic conference call that every lawmaker should get a voting station in their homes and “send the right message to the country by operating remotely.”

And Rep. Tom MalinowskiThomas (Tom) MalinowskiMalinowski beats back GOP challenge in New Jersey House race Phil Murphy says no coronavirus outbreaks in New Jersey linked to Trump fundraiser Marjorie Taylor Greene spars with GOP lawmaker over QAnon, antifa MORE (D-N.J.), a freshman in a swing district, expressed discomfort with continuing to vote for bills with such a high price tag by unanimous consent, warning that “if we continue to carry on in this way, it’s going to transform the way the House works.”

Scott Wong contributed.