(WASHINGTON) — Congressional leaders are facing a growing number of calls from rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats to consider new rules to keep them off Capitol Hill as concerns over the novel coronavirus pandemic increase.
This comes after two House members said they tested positive and more than a dozen lawmakers remain in self-quarantine.
On Wednesday evening, Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and Ben McAdams, D-Utah, revealed that they had tested positive for COVID-19, after experiencing flu-like symptoms.
The announcement has forced at least nine — as of Thursday afternoon — House members into self-quarantine, just days after 404 lawmakers gathered in close to vote for the second coronavirus relief package on Saturday morning.
The Capitol has essentially been locked down, and most House members and senators have closed their Washington offices and directed staff to work remotely.
Still, lawmakers are required to appear on the House and Senate floors to vote on legislation to help the nation combat the virus and provide relief to American workers and industry.
That’s a risky proposition for lawmakers in both chambers: As of January 2019, the average age of a House member was 57.6 years old, and 62.9 years old in the Senate, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
“When you compound that with the meetings they take, and also how often they travel and are in airplanes, it makes them maybe the most vulnerable population in the entire country,” Josh Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, told ABC News.
The Senate remains in session, with senators in town after voting this week on the second stimulus package, signed by President Donald Trump on Wednesday night, and racing to put together a third agreement with the administration.
“We’ll not be doing that,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday when asked about remote voting. “We will deal with the social distancing issue without fundamentally changing the Senate rules.”
The House will not reconvene again until the next stimulus package is ready for passage, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a letter to colleagues on Thursday. He also said the House would “adjust our voting procedures” to limit members from gathering on the floor in keeping with federal health officials’ guidelines.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially dismissed the possibility of remote voting in a closed-door meeting of House Democrats last week, according to one source familiar with the discussion between members.
But by Thursday, Pelosi had directed House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern to conduct a study on remote voting, to determine whether it’s feasible in the House. McGovern announced the move on a caucus conference call Thursday afternoon.
An aide to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told ABC News the leader “generally has concerns” about remote voting and its impact on the legislative process that usually takes place on the House floor.
But with a growing number Republicans and Democrats from across both parties endorsing remote voting, they may be forced to reconsider.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a member of Democratic leadership, and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, introduced a proposal Thursday that would allow senators to vote remotely temporarily in the event of a national emergency, subject to renewal every 30 days.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., one of 51 lawmakers to sign on to a bipartisan letter from Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., urging leadership to allow remote voting, said Thursday that Congress should not “continue business as usual when the country is watching.”
“It is a cause for concern to have us really putting ourselves and some of our vulnerable members at risk when we are asking the American people to practice safe distancing,” she said.
Florida Rep. Francis Rooney also endorsed remote voting, citing the Estonian system that would allow them to vote over the internet.
“The work of Congress must continue, but it need not put people at risk unnecessarily,” Rooney said in a statement.
Adopting any new rules to allow remote voting could also present logistical, technical and security challenges, according to experts.
While the Senate doesn’t have rules in place that would allow it to hold votes with less than a majority of members, the House — under a rule approved in 2005 to address emergencies — could operate under a “provisional quorum” instead of a majority, should leaders be unable to field enough members over a 96-hour waiting period, according to Huder.
“It’s a process that’s never been used,” he said. “It’s not something that I think anyone has real confidence in given that it’s unusual.”
Absent a rule change, both chambers could hold votes while limiting the number of members physically present on the floor at a given time to maintain social distancing, something McConnell alluded to earlier this week.
The House could also conduct its work with a reduced number of members under an agreement that no member request a “quorum call” for a majority of members — an arrangement that would require leaders to keep a tight hold on every independent-minded House member and prevent rabble-rousers from objecting to proceedings. But that might be a tall order in 2020.
On Monday, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, almost forced the entire chamber to return to Washington to re-vote in person on the stimulus package after a number of tweaks were made to the language, but the chamber has banded together during national emergencies in the past.
For example, as the Spanish Flu rocked the world in October 1918, the House passed a measure to add doctors to the Public Health Service with less than 50 members voting.
It only took a quick agreement between House leaders and a little effort to convince two members to withdraw their protests, according to the House historian’s office.
Senators too are discussing the possibility of voting off-site, according to Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer.
“Yes, there’s talk about it. It is amazing how fast things change around here, I’m anxious to see if there’s been any movement around that possibility,” Cramer said. “I don’t know how you can have two members of Congress as far apart as Utah and Florida, and have the virus and not be seriously considering that type of an arrangement.”
He added, “At some point, our example has to be not just showing up to work, but showing up smart for work.”
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