House Democrats rolled out a proposed new rule on Wednesday to allow proxy voting, even as they prepare for a showdown within their own caucus over a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer released the details of their remote work plan after weeks of mounting pressure from homebound lawmakers of both parties. The proposal, known as proxy voting, would allow lawmakers to cast votes for colleagues who aren’t in the Capitol in person, marking one of the biggest changes to chamber rules in decades.
Meanwhile, Pelosi and her top deputies are scrambling to unite their members behind a massive proposal that would infuse hundreds of billions of dollars into state and local governments and other social safety nets, yet falls short of what many progressives had sought. And some of the Democrats’ more vulnerable moderates have also raised concerns with provisions tucked in the 1,800-page bill.
In a sign of how fluid House Democratic support for the coronavirus package is, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) sent a notice to members on Wednesday morning alerting them of a “close and important” vote on Friday. The whip team is counting not only the number of supporters for the bill, but is also trying to determine who can make it to Washington for the vote — a scenario that complicates the tough math for party leaders. Traveling has become more complicated for lawmakers during the pandemic as U.S. airlines have dramatically reduced service.
Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, projected optimism Wednesday morning, saying he thinks Democratic leaders will have enough votes to pass both the coronavirus relief bill — called the Heroes Act — and the remote voting rules change on Friday. It’s unlikely that either will draw significant GOP support.
“I’m confident we’re going to pass the Heroes Act,” Hoyer said in an interview with POLITICO. “We’re talking to members — I talked to a lot of members yesterday, myself. Whip Clyburn is now counting.”
Both Pelosi and Hoyer touted the bill during a caucus call Wednesday morning, which was focused on the proxy voting rule.
And a group of 13 House committee chairs sent a letter late Tuesday night reiterating their support for the Heroes Act, saying, “Lives are on the line, and time is of the essence ... We urge you to support the legislation and to be present on Friday.”
A handful of moderate Democrats are leaning toward voting against the bill, according to multiple people familiar with discussions. Several are concerned about provisions related to undocumented immigrants, while others have griped about the rushed process or the overall size of the bill.
Under the Democratic rules change, a lawmaker could serve as a “designated proxy” for only up to 10 members. And that lawmaker must receive and follow “exact written instruction” on how their colleagues want to vote on any procedure, from individual amendments to final passage of legislation. Hoyer said those precautions are being taken to address GOP concerns that lawmakers voting by proxy for other members could vote any way they wanted, even possibly against the absent member’s wishes.
“There’s still reservations the minority has as to whether this could work and work accurately,” Hoyer said. “This neither advantages the majority nor disadvantages the minority. This is simply to replicate what we can do in person but are precluded from doing by an extrinsic force.”
Proxy voting was allowed in committees until Republicans banned the practice after their 1994 takeover of the House.
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), along with other GOP members of the task force, released a scathing statement on Wednesday calling the Democrats' proposal "the biggest power grab in the history of Congress."
"It creates a dangerous new definition of 'voting by proxy' that runs counter to past House committee precedent, current Senate committee practice, and the Constitution," they wrote.
Democrats would also allow committees to hold remote hearings, markups and depositions. But Hoyer said House panels would start with hearings first to ease members into the change and get them comfortable with the remote technology before voting on legislation in committee.
The change would be temporary, permitted only for 45-day periods during the pandemic that has made the U.S. Capitol unsafe for members and aides to gather. The rule will only cover the 116th Congress, which ends in January.
But the Democratic proposal could eventually include a path to remote floor voting for all members. Democrats have tasked the House Administration Committee — chaired by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) — to “study the feasibility” of the idea. McCarthy and senior Republicans have opposed that option, and Pelosi has signaled that she doesn’t like it, either.
The looming rules change vote comes three weeks after Pelosi hit pause on a similar plan, backed only by Democrats, in an effort to bring Republicans on board.
Hoyer said despite three meetings and multiple calls with McCarthy, the two sides weren’t able to come to a bipartisan deal. Democrats, however, did incorporate some Republican ideas into their final proposal, which Hoyer said the House would only use for extreme emergencies, such as the current pandemic.
“Neither the speaker, nor I, nor McCarthy ... believe that there’s any substitute for in-person participation,” Hoyer said, adding the leaders all agree it should be used only in the “rarest of instances.”
“I can’t think of any event that’s happened in the 40 years that I’ve been in the Congress ... in which this would have been utilized, not even after 9/11,” he added.
Democrats are making their commitment to allow proxy voting nearly two months after Pelosi instructed Rules Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) to study the issue of remote voting, a timeline that some members complained took too long amid the pandemic.
Some Democrats are still seeking further changes. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said his members want to be able to debate remotely on the floor, rather than simply entering their statements into the congressional record.
"What remains essential is public debate on the floor. There’s no reason we can’t do that," Gottheimer said.
Many lawmakers had demanded an update to House rules after a frenetic scene in late March, when a single GOP lawmaker, Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, forced hundreds of members to rush back to Washington to prevent him from blocking the passage of a $2 trillion relief package.
“Legislating nearly always involves physically gathering together in one place, but if nothing else the world has learned over these past few difficult months that people need to be able to do their work in novel ways in times of emergency,” McGovern wrote in a letter to his colleagues on Wednesday.
The White House and Republican leaders in both chambers oppose the latest Democratic coronavirus package, arguing that not enough time has passed since Congress approved its previous package, which was roughly half a trillion dollars. Democrats have crafted the $3 trillion package without input from either.
Congress has already approved $3 trillion in emergency spending and tax cuts in the roughly two months since the start of the pandemic.