Tradition-bound Congress considers voting remotely as coronavirus illnesses hit home
WASHINGTON – Congress is in a race against the coronavirus – and not just to help Americans confront the global pandemic.
On Wednesday, two House members, Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and Ben McAdams, D-Utah, announced they had tested positive for the coronavirus. More than a dozen members have self-quarantined in their homes. Many staffers are staying away from the Capitol. Offices have been shuttered as cleaning crews disinfect them.
Suddenly, the idea of changing foundational congressional rules to allow voting from remote locations rather than all together has become a serious proposition in a body that prides itself on following time-honored customs.
“The Senate is a pretty tradition-bound place,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the second most powerful Republican in the chamber. “But these are extraordinary circumstances.”
Senate rules require a senator to be physically present during a roll call vote. Senators may vote from their desks or in the well of the chamber, but they must be present so the clerk can record their vote.
Changing that would require a supermajority of 67 votes, the same number needed to override a presidential veto.
But the idea of "remote voting" is suddenly gaining traction in the marbled halls of Capitol Hill.
Senators Dick Durbin, D-Ill, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Thursday proposed a rules change that would permit senators to vote remotely during a national crisis provided the leaders of both parties agree.
“We live in an age where national emergencies, public health crises, and terrorism can threaten the ordinary course of Senate business," Durbin said. "We need to bring voting in the Senate into the 21st century so that our important work can continue even under extraordinary circumstances."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell so far opposes such a break from tradition, though he is willing to bend them a little by extending the time senators can cast floor votes.
During Wednesday's vote to adopt a sweeping coronavirus relief package, senators were given 30 minutes instead of the traditional 15 so they could practice social distancing.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has been resistant to remote voting, is apparently now open to the idea. She instructed Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., to examine whether it could work.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told members of his caucus on a call Thursday that leaders are discussing ways to limit the number of lawmakers gathering for votes.
But the call for change grows with each passing announcement of another member in quarantine.
"For the safety of our communities, during this emergency, we must be able to legislate from our districts," tweeted Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla.
Lawmaker quarantine list growing
The news of positive tests by Diaz-Balart and McAdams has brought the crisis to the congressional doorstep.
As of Thursday morning,more than a dozen House members went into self-quarantine because of contact with lawmakers who tested positive. Some have returned to Capitol Hill but more are added to the list daily.
Earlier this week, after a staffer in the office of Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., tested positive for the disease, which has been named COVID-19, several House members, including Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., closed their Washington, D.C., offices.
A former staffer on the House Intelligence Committee, Daniel Goldman, who played a major public role during Trump's impeachment proceedings, also tested positive.
And on the Senate side, a staffer in the office of Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., also tested positive, forcing the closure of her office, though Cantwell's office said the staffer had no contact with the senator or other lawmakers. Several senators, including Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., closed their offices in response to the staffer's positive test.
Other lawmakers like Sen Ted. Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., have self-quarantined after coming into contact with people who later tested positive for the coronavirus. Cruz came back and voted for the coronavirus relief bill Wednesday.
No more than 10 people at a time
The Trump administration issued new guidance Monday recommending against gatherings of more than 10 people at a time.
That's a problem for the Senate, which has 100 members, and the House of Representatives, which currently has 430 members (there are five vacancies). And none of that includes the hundreds of staffers, reporters and support staff filtering in and out of the Capitol complex.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised people older than 60 to avoid large crowds. The average age is 63 in the Senate and 58 in the House.
Durbin noted the "challenging" circumstances the Senate faced because it's not just lawmakers but also aides and staff who are being asked to ignore federal guidelines and assemble in one place.
"There are policemen. There are people engaged in basic activates here to keep this magnificent structure functioning And they come here now in the midst of a public health challenge where most every American has been told stay home," he said.
Need to vote on coronavirus legislation
Until Congress decides to allow remote voting, lawmakers will have to come to Washington to consider and vote on the various relief packages being proposed, negotiated and brought to the floor.
Measures to assist workers who find themselves jobless, distressed industries like airlines whose businesses have cratered, and health care providers who need protections continue to be negotiated by lawmakers and their staffs – face-to-face in most cases.
"The Senate will not leave until we have processed yet another bill to address this emergency," McConnell told reporters Tuesday, speaking from a podium that had just been scrubbed down and disinfected.
Much of the heavy lifting on these bills should be done as quickly as possible, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told reporters Monday, in case potential changes to airline and travel schedules make it difficult to bring the Senate back into session.
“I don't think we can operate as if we can just bring the Senate and the House back together whenever we want," he said.
Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., told reporters Tuesday there was an eerie feeling around the Capitol, and the lack of face-to-face conversation made it "tough" when trying to take a vote.
“It’s really very sparse and people are staying away from each other and trying to do more by email and phone," he said. "That’s a tough thing to do when you’ve got to take a vote."
Last week, Reps. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., and Rick Crawford, R-Ark., introduced legislation to change the House rules, allow members to hold hearings by video conference, and allow absent lawmakers to vote remotely.
Contributing: Christal Hayes and Deborah Berry