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Top Republican voices skepticism of rule change to allow remote voting

Top Republican voices skepticism of rule change to allow remote voting
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Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeNow that earmarks are back, it's time to ban 'poison pill' riders Parade of 2024 GOP hopefuls court House conservatives Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings dies at 84 MORE (Okla.), the top Republican on the House Rules Committee, expressed skepticism about a proposed rules change that would allow lawmakers to vote remotely during the coronavirus pandemic but acknowledged it may be "the best of a series of bad options."

GOP support would be critical in enacting a rules change proposed by House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) on Thursday. 

His change would allow proxy voting — in which an absent member would authorize another member physically present in the chamber to cast a vote on his or her behalf — on legislation to address the pandemic.

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Cole, who has served in the House since 2003, described himself as "very much an institutionalist and a traditionalist" reluctant to change the fundamental way that the chamber passes legislation. But Cole said it's possible he could be convinced to support the rules change proposed by McGovern.

"I'm going to keep an open mind about it. I'm going to keep talking to my colleagues," Cole said in a phone interview on Friday. "If you're going to vote remotely, I think it's the best of a series of bad options."

The House has been out of session for most of the last five weeks due to fears that business as usual — gathering hundreds of lawmakers and staff together in the Capitol and traveling back to their districts every week — could risk further contagion. At least six members of Congress, as well as a handful of staff and Capitol Police officers, have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks.

But there's growing frustration among rank-and-file members of both parties that Congress has effectively sidelined itself by not having alternatives to being physically present in the Capitol to conduct legislative business and oversight.

McGovern kept Cole apprised of his proposal and briefed members of the Rules Committee in a Zoom session before making the public announcement Thursday afternoon.

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It's possible that the House could adopt a rules change by unanimous consent or voice vote if both parties sign off on it. But if not, members would have to return to Washington to vote in person on the rules change before they could start voting remotely.

While Cole is willing to consider the idea of proxy voting, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyWarren says Republican party 'eating itself and it is discovering that the meal is poisonous' Biden: McCarthy's support of Cheney ouster is 'above my pay grade' On The Money: Inflation jumps at fastest pace since 2008 | Biden 'encouraged' on bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE (R-Calif.) has expressed opposition to the proposal in recent weeks. McCarthy told The Hill late last month that proxy voting "puts too much power in one hand."

Cole warned that allowing proxy voting during the pandemic could potentially set a bad precedent if it led to members calling for its use on a regular basis for noncontroversial bills. 

"By and large — and I think most people agree — legislating has to be pretty much face to face. It doesn't work very well this way. There's bad precedent, I think, setting this," Cole said. "If you worry about the ability of Congress to work together, the isolation of individuals away from one another exacerbates almost every problem we have."

The proposed rules change to allow proxy voting would only apply to bills related to addressing the coronavirus crisis. It would also not apply to committee activity.

The House currently has the options of passing bills by unanimous consent or voice vote, which require cooperation from all members, or making members be physically present in the chamber.

The House last month passed the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill by voice vote. But since conservative Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieOvernight Health Care: WHO-backed Covax gets a boost from Moderna Vaccine hesitancy among lawmakers slows return to normalcy on Capitol Hill Gaetz, House Republicans introduce bill to defund Postal Service covert operations program MORE (R-Ky.) called for a roll call vote, House leaders had make sure at least 216 members were physically present in the chamber to establish a quorum and override his demand.

In the Senate, negotiations are underway to allow senators to hold hearings remotely. Lawmakers in both chambers are limited to holding briefings, rather than public hearings, while they remain scattered across the country.

"I am working with Senator Klobuchar and others at my initiation to see if we can find a way to do remote hearings and other things that don't require members to be together to have a vote, but do allow members to be at least virtually together to collect information. I think we can do that," Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntDemocratic Kansas City, Mo., mayor eyes Senate run Democrats, GOP agree on one thing: They're skeptical of a deal Senate panel deadlocks in vote on sweeping elections bill MORE (R-Mo.) told reporters.