House postpones plans to enact remote voting

The House is putting off a plan to vote this week to change its rules to allow a form of remote voting during the coronavirus pandemic after the effort came under heavy criticism from Republicans.

In a significant shift, the House will instead empower a bipartisan group to study the issue after Republicans balked at Democrats’ initial proposal.

The reversal comes as members of both parties have pushed for a way for the House to conduct its business during the pandemic, either by coming to the Capitol in person or remotely, after weeks out of session.

The House had planned to vote Thursday on a rules change that would allow virtual committee hearings and proxy voting, in which absent members could authorize members physically present in the Capitol to cast votes on their behalf.

But House Democratic leaders instead reversed course on Wednesday after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spoke with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), according to a Democratic leadership aide.

The bipartisan group to review how to resume House business during the pandemic will include McCarthy, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and the chairs and ranking Republicans of the Rules and Administration committees.

The House will instead vote Thursday on a resolution to create the select committee announced by Pelosi earlier this month to oversee the federal response to the coronavirus crisis, according to two Democratic aides. That panel will be led by House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.).

Lawmakers will also vote Thursday to clear an interim coronavirus relief measure to refill the coffers of the small business loan program, which ran out of funds last week due to high demand from businesses seeking a lifeline during the pandemic.

The bill, which the Senate passed by voice vote on Tuesday, includes an additional $310 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, including $60 billion specifically for community banks and smaller lenders, as well as $75 billion for hospitals, $25 billion for testing, and $60 billion for emergency disaster loans and grants.

Republicans had blasted the proposed rules changes from Democrats. House GOP leaders had issued a notice on Tuesday urging members to vote against the proposal, before the text of the resolution was released around 2 a.m. Wednesday.

Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), the top Republican on the House Rules Committee who will now be in the bipartisan group reviewing remote voting options, argued that lawmakers should still come to the Capitol in person to vote.

“I believe we already have existing tools to continue the people’s work without introducing brand-new, constitutionally untested processes that risk erosion of our normal practice. For even a temporary measure to deal with a crisis today becomes the precedent we follow tomorrow,” Cole said in a statement on Wednesday.

House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern’s (D-Mass.) resolution outlining the proposed rules changes would have allowed proxy voting for floor votes and authorized virtual committee hearings and markups. The resolution would have also directed the Rules and Administration committees to study the feasibility of how members could participate in floor debate remotely using technology.

McGovern stressed that the proposed rules changes would be a temporary measure during the pandemic and would only last for 60 days unless renewed.

“Experts are warning that we could see a second surge of coronavirus cases in the coming months. Should more lockdowns come quickly, I don’t want us to look back then and wish we made changes now. We cannot risk Congress grinding to a halt because of this virus. We need to act,” McGovern said.

Legislatures across the country and the world have been changing their practices as they adapt to social distancing measures recommended by public health officials during the pandemic. Some state legislatures, including Pennsylvania’s and New Jersey’s, recently changed their rules to allow proceedings by video conference or phone line. And the United Kingdom’s Parliament this week established a “hybrid” form of its proceedings by limiting the number of House of Commons members in the chamber at a time with others able to take part in debates using Zoom videoconferencing software.

— Mike Lillis contributed to this report, which was updated at 12:24 p.m.

Tags Kevin McCarthy Nancy Pelosi Proxy voting remote voting Steny Hoyer Tom Cole

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