WASHINGTON — Congress is in a race against the coronavirus – and not just to help Americans confront the global pandemic.
The virus is starting to prevent the world’s greatest deliberative body from deliberating.
More than a dozen members are self-quarantining in their homes. Even more staffers are staying away from the Capitol. Offices have been shuttered. And suddenly the idea of changing foundational Senate 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 likely would need a supermajority of 67 votes, the same number needed to override a presidential veto.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he wasn’t interested in changing the chamber’s rule but was willing to bend them a little by extending the time senators can cast floor votes.
“It’s not set in stone that a roll call vote goes on for only 15 minutes,” he said, referring to the usual time limit. “We can lengthen the amount of the roll call vote. People could come over one at a time, they could come over in small groups. We will deal with the social distancing issue without fundamentally changing Senate rules.”
Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin would like to see that happen.
The second most powerful Democrat in the Senate was on the floor Tuesday urging a change to “remote voting”and calling for the Senate at least to start holding committee meetings by teleconference or video links. That would allow the exchange of ideas without forcing lawmakers, their aides, police and other Capitol Hill staff to congregate and potentially spread the disease.
“We have to think anew about the way the senate does business,” Durbin said. “If we’re telling people to do their work from home when possible – teleconferencing as opposed to being physically present – what are we doing to achieve the same thing?”
The House, which is on recess until next week, is contemplating a similar step. The issue has been discussed with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., but aides say no formal effort to explore that procedure has been launched.
House leaders are reportedly developing a plan to limit the number of lawmakers voting at the same time to no more than 30 as form of crowd control, according to Bloomberg News.
Lawmaker quarantine list growing
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 for the virus.
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 Cruz and Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., have self-quarantined after coming into contact with people who later tested positive for the coronavirus.
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.”
Durbin said tradition has its place. But not in the middle of a coronavirus.
“It’s time for the senate to wake up to the 21st century,” Durbin said. “And to make sure we’re using technology that allows us to communicate with one another without any risk or danger to public health.”
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.
Despite these proposals, Pelosi told reporters last week, “we can’t vote from home.”
Contributing: Deborah Berry