Key senators negotiating potential deal to allow remote Senate hearings
Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee, respectively, are negotiating with their colleagues on a potential deal to allow the Senate to hold remote hearings, aides confirmed to The Hill.
The discussions come as the Senate is in the middle of a five-week recess sparked by the rapid spread of the coronavirus that has ground to a halt not only normal Senate floor action but also the myriad of day-to-day committee hearings.
Blunt, who leads the Rules Committee and is a member of GOP leadership, said he’s “very much trying to figure out a way to make that work.”
“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,” he told reporters.
A spokesperson for Klobuchar, the panel’s top Democrat, told The Hill that they are trying to figure out a way to allow senators to do committee business while sticking with the current Senate rules.
Without a change to the Senate rules, remote committee meetings would be limited to hearings, where senators hear from and question witnesses. Remote business meetings, where senators vote on legislation or nominations, would not be allowed without a rules change.
A GOP aide added that the Rules Committee is working in conjunction with other Senate panels and the Senate sergeant-at-arms to study options for remote “information gathering hearings,” which could happen without a rules change.
A Klobuchar spokesman confirmed that the negotiations are focused only on hearings.
Though many of Congress’s big legislative deadlines aren’t until the fall, key committees like the Senate Armed Services Committee or the Senate Appropriations Committee use the spring to hold hearings with administration officials to lay the groundwork.
The Armed Services panel announced last week that it was putting its plan to hold “paper hearings” during the coronavirus crisis on ice after one hearing.
“Recognizing the additional burden on the Department of Defense at this critical time, Chairman [James] Inhofe [R-Okla.] and Ranking Member [Jack] Reed [D-R.I.] have agreed to postpone future paper hearings until the committee has more clarity on the COVID-19 situation,” panel spokeswoman Marta Hernandez said in a statement.
President Trump also railed against the Senate for being out of town, noting it was creating a nominations bottleneck. His nominee for one position specifically mentioned by the president, the director of national intelligence, is currently awaiting a hearing before the Intelligence Committee, something that is currently on hold until the Senate returns as soon as May 4.
The talk about holding remote hearings comes after House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) proposed allowing for remote voting by proxy during the coronavirus crisis. The House would need to pass the rules change before it could take effect, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has previously indicated that he opposes remote voting by proxy.
“We don’t know how long this pandemic will threaten public health, or how long state stay at home orders will last. We all know, though, that Congress needs to be working, whether in person, remotely, or both,” McGovern said in a statement.
But Senate GOP leaders are still opposed to implementing remote voting. A proposed rules change from Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has the support of a bipartisan group of 15 senators.
The spokesman for Klobuchar told The Hill that while the Democratic senator wants to find a way for the Senate to convene and vote remotely, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is continuing to object to the idea.
Blunt, who would have jurisdiction over such a rules change, added that he also remained opposed to remote voting.
“My guess is we will continue to decide that legislative bodies have to meet in order to function. And that there are emergencies, where you should be able to agree by unanimous consent on issues,” he said.