House leaders enact new safety precautions for votes

House leaders enact new safety precautions for votes
© Greg Nash

House leaders will be enacting new safety protocols for votes on Thursday to help protect members and staff from the coronavirus.

Members will have to vote in at least eight time slots based on alphabetical order in groups of about 60 at a time and are being asked to exit the chamber immediately after voting.

The protocols were set out in a memo to lawmakers on Wednesday from Paul Irving, the sergeant at arms, and Brian Monahan, the Capitol's attending physician. They are intended to reduce the number of lawmakers voting at one time.

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The memo also advises members to only be in the chamber during floor debate when they are scheduled to speak and remain in their offices as much as possible.

"Please note that throughout voting, we will monitor the number of members on the floor to ensure we maintain safe social distancing," Irving and Monahan wrote. "Members will be notified with sufficient time to travel safely to the chamber to vote."

Lawmakers were also advised to wear face coverings "when it may not be possible to maintain the minimum six-foot separation distance."

Some members of Congress have already been wearing facial coverings in the Capitol. The Attending Physician's office advised anyone attending a House Rules Committee hearing on Wednesday to wear a facial covering — though not all lawmakers present followed the guidance.

House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), as well as the panel's top Republican, Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeHouse panel advances health bill with B in emergency COVID-19 funds Bipartisan lawmakers introduce bill to limit further expansion of 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Democrats sidestep budget deal by seeking 0B in emergency spending MORE (R-Okla.), both wore masks at the hearing. But Reps. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus poses questions about school safety; Trump commutes Roger Stone sentence Nadler: Barr dealings with Berman came 'awfully close to bribery' MORE (R-Ohio) and Michael BurgessMichael Clifton BurgessTechnical difficulties mar several remote House hearings The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Moniz says U.S. needs energy jobs coalition and Manchin says Congress is pushing Wall Street solutions that don't work for Main Street; Burr to step aside The Hill's 12:30 Report: House returns to DC for coronavirus relief MORE (R-Texas) did not.

House members will be gathering en masse in the Capitol for the first time in four weeks on Thursday to vote on a $484 billion package to renew funding for small business loans and provide more funding for hospitals and coronavirus testing.

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The House will also take up a measure to create a select committee led by House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) overseeing how federal funds are allocated to respond to the coronavirus crisis.

The Senate passed the relief package by voice vote on Tuesday with only a handful of senators on hand.

The votes slated for Thursday are likely to take hours given the safety precautions.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse panel wraps up lightning-fast appropriations for 2021 Rep. Clyburn on Confederate statues: Mob action is no answer Pelosi 'absolutely' willing to push August recess to work on coronavirus relief MORE's (D-Md.) office sent guidance estimating that the first vote, expected to start around 1:30 p.m., would take about an hour and 20 minutes.

The House will then go into a 30-minute recess before starting the next roll call vote to allow time for staff to disinfect the chamber.

The House previously adopted some new safety measures during the March 27 session to pass the $2.2 trillion relief package that created the small business loan program.

Lawmakers were provided with a supply of disinfectant and paper towels to wipe down the microphones and podiums after each use.

Because conservative Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieBattle brewing on coronavirus relief oversight GOP lawmakers push amendment to rescind authority for troops in Afghanistan Biggs, Massie call on Trump to remove troops from Afghanistan MORE (R-Ky.) demanded a roll call vote, House leaders had to summon at least 216 members to establish a quorum and override his request so they could still pass the bill by voice vote.

Since all the present members had to be physically in the chamber at once to establish the quorum, many lawmakers were seated in the visitors' galleries overlooking the House floor to maintain physical distancing.

But dozens of lawmakers were seated in the chamber throughout the debate, with most sitting at least one seat apart.

Lawmakers began traveling back to Washington on Wednesday, with multiple members sharing photos on social media of near-empty planes and airports.

House Democrats had initially also planned to vote on a resolution on Thursday that would have allowed for virtual committee hearings and a form of remote voting during the pandemic.

The proposal would have allowed proxy voting, in which absent members could authorize members physically present in the House chamber to vote on their behalf.

But Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi signals flexibility on size of renewed unemployment payments Car on fire near Supreme Court Watch live: Pelosi speaks on coronavirus funding MORE (D-Calif.) ultimately scrapped the plan on Wednesday amid opposition from Republicans who argue that members of Congress should still show up to the Capitol to vote in person during the pandemic. A bipartisan group has instead been tasked to study how to revive House operations. 

Legislatures across the country and the world have adapted their practices to adhere to public health guidelines during the pandemic. State legislatures like in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have started allowing lawmakers to vote by phone or videoconference, while the United Kingdom's Parliament this week began limiting the number of members physically present in the chambers while the rest participated in debates by Zoom.