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The day after two members of Congress tested positive for the coronavirus, rank-and-file lawmakers were escalating calls for congressional leaders to allow remote voting.
In the immediate aftermath, however, House and Senate leaders were not willing to make that promise and could offer no assurances to members about limiting contact with colleagues, many of whom are in the older age bracket that health authorities repeatedly warn are at particular risk from COVID-19.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Thursday directed members of her leadership team to study options for remote voting and then “present a report” of findings to colleagues.
She did not, however, commit to a timetable for when that report would be finalized and whether she would ultimately support a scenario where members could vote from their home districts as more than a dozen lawmakers enter self-quarantine to monitor for symptoms.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he would lengthen the time that lawmakers can cast votes on the floor, from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, to allow members to vote in shifts and avoid congregating in large groups.
He is not, however, considering remote voting in his chamber, even with the first known coronavirus cases among members on Capitol Hill — Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and Ben McAdams, D-Utah.
Sens. Rick Scott, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also submitted to self-quarantine after coming into direct contact with individuals who had contracted the coronavirus.
“The leader doesn’t want it to happen,” Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said in a statement Thursday, referring to remote voting. “It’s not going to happen. We are going to continue to vote in person.”
Pelosi and McConnell are institutionalists who are seen as reluctant to embrace such a radical departure from how Congress traditionally operates.
But they are also facing a dilemma where 535 members of the House and Senate want to adhere to the same health guidance given to every American — guidelines being followed by their families and congressional staff —which recommend against gathering in groups of 10 people or more for the foreseeable future to stop the spread of the virus.
At the White House on Thursday, President Donald Trump had no advice to offer members of Congress on how to proceed.
“They tested positive. Hopefully they will all get better,” Trump said at a press briefing in response to a question about what guidance he was giving lawmakers after the first two positive tests. “It’s one of those things. It’s Congress.”
Pressed on whether he thought members should continue going to Capitol Hill, Trump said, “many people in Congress have felt not perfect, or they met somebody who was not perfect, turned out to be positive. And they have put themselves in quarantine. I think Congress has behaved unbelievably well in that regard.”
Democrats and Republicans are telling Pelosi and McConnell that they must seriously consider a change in policy at this time.
There is particular urgency right now for many House members, who are currently back in their home districts and are fearful of returning to Washington, to vote on the next coronavirus relief package, which senators are currently negotiating and plan to stay until they pass the bill.
There is some discussion of doing in the House what McConnell is planning to do in the Senate: allowing longer voting windows so members can time their presence on the floor to avoid crowds.
This may not satisfy the lawmakers who are readily admitting they are fearful for their colleagues’ health and safety.
“We have so many people who cannot drive to Washington, I don’t think people should be flying,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., in an interview.
“We have so many members who are cancer survivors, in the Congressional Black Caucus alone we have eight members who are cancer survivors, two members on Dialysis, and a member who has Parkinsons. They have to figure out a way to remotely vote,” she said.
While Democrats who control the House will decide whether lawmakers in that chamber vote remotely or not, House Republicans are also urging their party leaders to support the concept.
“This remote vote capability is even more necessary now that there are two Representatives that have tested positive for the virus,” said Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., in a statement. “The work of Congress must continue, but it need not put people at risk unnecessarily.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Thursday that lawmakers would make every effort to protect members’ health. He said Democratic leaders would attempt to get an agreement with Republicans for a vote by “Unanimous Consent” on the forthcoming coronavirus relief bill, which would not require members to be physically present to vote on passage.
But Hoyer also cautioned House Democrats in a conference call that this scenario was highly unlikely as there would almost certainly be lawmakers who would want to force a recorded vote on the multibillion-dollar legislation that is likely to be controversial.
On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ill., have introduced a formal resolution to allow senators to vote remotely during a “national crisis.”
“It’s during times like this, when we have a pandemic affecting every corner of society and we are asking people to stay in their homes, that we should have the ability to convene the Senate and get our work done even if we can’t be in the Capitol,” said Portman in a statement.
Michael Wilner, Alex Daugherty and Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.