House members race to prepare for first-ever remote votes

House lawmakers are bustling to prepare for the chamber’s historic first remote votes this week, with a race on for members to secure proxies, who are limited to representing 10 colleagues each.

Some Democrats who represent districts near the nation’s capital are suddenly experiencing a surge in popularity among representatives who can’t travel to Washington as easily. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Wednesday officially invoked a 45-day period for remote voting and committee work, which can be renewed as necessary as a way to reduce the risk of coronavirus contagion for lawmakers and anyone they come into contact with while the pandemic persists.

Within 48 hours, Rep. Don Beyer, a Northern Virginia Democrat whose commute to the Capitol is only about a 15-minute drive, had already received nearly the maximum number of requests from colleagues asking if he could serve as their proxy.

Beyer said Friday that he had already agreed to serve as a proxy for nine others, leaving him only one slot to spare.

“It’s too bad that we have to have this, but it’s my pleasure to be able to do it for my friends. I know they really want to participate. They want to be on the record,” Beyer told The Hill. “It seems a lot better than just not being able to do the people’s work or putting a bunch of people at grave risk.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin, who similarly has a short commute from Takoma Park, Md., is also serving as a proxy for at least three other Democratic lawmakers: Reps. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Mark Pocan (Wis.) and Andy Levin (Mich.).

The House is scheduled to meet for two days after Memorial Day to vote on bills to extend government surveillance powers and give small businesses more flexibility while using the loans offered through the Paycheck Protection Program due to the pandemic.

But the session will also serve the first test for the rules changes that House Democrats adopted earlier this month to create an alternative to their usual gathering closely in the Capitol.

The House clerk’s website has a running list of more than a dozen Democrats already confirmed as planning to vote by proxy: Reps. Gil Cisneros (Calif.), Steve Cohen (Tenn.), Ted Deutch (Fla.), Bill Foster (Ill.), Lois Frankel (Fla.), Vicente Gonzalez (Texas), Jared Huffman (Calif.), Jayapal, Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas), Ro Khanna (Calif.), Levin, Alan Lowenthal (Calif.), Pocan, Kurt Schrader (Ore.), Bennie Thompson (Miss.), Marc Veasey (Texas), Filemon Vela (Texas) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (N.J.).

A number of the designated proxies don’t represent districts in the Washington, D.C., region, or even within a few hours driving distance. Schrader and Vela, for instance, have designated Arizona Reps. Tom O’Halleran and Ruben Gallego as their proxies, respectively.

And so far the number of lawmakers making public their plans to vote by proxy are a fraction of the 233-member Democratic caucus — an indication that a majority are still planning to show up to the Capitol despite the risks and logistical difficulties posed by extensive travel.

“It seems like many members are going to try and get back for next week. I think some folks are worried about how it would look to miss the vote,” a Democratic aide said.

Republicans, meanwhile, remain adamant that lawmakers should be voting in person during the crisis as a way to show solidarity with essential workers who can’t telework.

With the exception of retiring Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), who supports the rules changes and has indicated he plans to use proxy voting, most Republicans are expected to eschew the option.

The rules changes, which were adopted along party lines, state that any lawmakers who vote by proxy are counted toward a quorum.

But Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who has made a point of convening the upper chamber over the last few weeks, argue that only in-person presence should count toward a quorum and warn that anything otherwise could run counter to the Constitution.

“I would doubt seriously if [Democrats] brought a major piece of legislation onto the floor without 218 people in the Capitol complex,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) told The Hill. “It’s more concern for Pelosi because it does raise the question of credibility of a bill passing if there are fewer than a majority of members there.”

Democrats reject that argument and point to legal precedent determining that each chamber of Congress has discretion over how to conduct its proceedings.

“Remote voting by proxy is fully consistent with the Constitution and more than a century of legal precedent, including Supreme Court cases, that make clear that the House can determine its own rules,” Pelosi said in a statement. 

Furthermore, there is historical precedent for proxy voting in House and Senate committees. Proxy voting in House committees was used until Republicans under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) ended it in the 1990s, but the practice is still allowed in Senate committees.

The House is setting a new precedent, however, in allowing proxy voting on the floor. 

Under the new rules, members voting by proxy must provide exact written instructions for each vote, including any unexpected procedural votes. The votes of lawmakers voting by proxy will also be announced from the floor during each vote. 

“Perhaps if in the next hundred years there’s another crisis, we’ll have precedent and know how to go forward,” Beyer said.

Juliegrace Brufke contributed.

Tags Alan Lowenthal Andy Levin Bennie Thompson Bill Foster Bonnie Watson Coleman Coronavirus Don Beyer Eddie Bernice Johnson Filemon Vela Francis Rooney Gil Cisneros Jamie Raskin Jared Huffman Kurt Schrader Lois Frankel Marc Veasey Mark Pocan Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Newt Gingrich Pramila Jayapal Proxy voting remote voting Ro Khanna Ruben Gallego Steve Cohen Steve Scalise Ted Deutch

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