The chairman of the House Rules Committee is recommending against bringing lawmakers back to Washington to vote on the nearly $2 trillion dollar coronavirus stimulus package. Instead, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) is suggesting the chamber pass the bill by unanimous consent or a voice vote.
The recommendation — made public in a letter and a report sent to Democrats Monday night — comes as the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the country and the Capitol. Two members of the House — Reps. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) and Mario Diaz Balart (R-Fla.) — have tested positive for the virus, with McAdams recently in the hospital. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also has the virus, and roughly a dozen more lawmakers are in quarantine.
“Clearly, the quickest and likely best path forward is for Congress to pass that measure by unanimous consent or by voice vote. Short of that, there are a few difficult options that we can consider utilizing,” McGovern wrote in a letter to his colleagues.
Notably, the report — which was commissioned by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — suggests that remote voting is not a viable option at the moment. Remote voting would be “one of the biggest rule changes in the last century, in one of the most critical institutions in our country,” the report says. The idea of remote voting also faces significant logistical and legal challenges.
“Although off-the-shelf products exist to allow a Member to videoconference their vote, for example, they have not been tested under the sort of pressure they would face from enemy states or other bad actors trying to force the system offline or prevent individual Members from accessing it,” the report says. “Such a system has to be extensively tested, not used for the first time on must-pass legislation.”
House leadership needs to decide quickly how it will consider the Senate’s coronavirus legislation. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday evening that he would work through the night to hatch an agreement with the Trump administration.
Mobile voting is unpopular in both the Democratic and Republican leadership, but has gained in popularity in the rank and file. Just hours before the report came out, more than 70 Democrats sent a letter to McGovern pushing for a temporary change in House rules to allow members to vote remotely. The letter did not raise the idea of voting via unanimous consent or voice vote.
“Unfortunately, during such circumstances, requiring members to vote in person may pose public health risks or even be physically impossible for persons under quarantine,” the Democrats, led by California Rep. Katie Porter, wrote. “We need to provide a mechanism through which Congress can act during times of crisis without having to assemble in one place.”
The report suggests other options Democratic leaders have at their disposal. They can call lawmakers back and hold the vote open for an extended period of time. They can institute “paired” voting, which is a relatively complex system that allows lawmakers to hatch an agreement with another member. They can reset the quorum necessary to vote. Or they can, under the current rules, change the quorum.
The report does suggest one potential rule change: allowing proxy voting. In this scenario, a member would allow a colleague to vote on their behalf.
Voting by unanimous consent has its limits: all it would take is one of the current 430 House members to object to passing the bill unanimously to derail the vote and force a chunk of the chamber back to Washington. In addition, some lawmakers are worried about the optics of voting on the biggest recovery package in American history via voice vote.
Congressional leaders have already informally discussed ways to appease members who want to weigh in — including the idea of allowing lawmakers to record how they would vote on the package in the Congressional Record. Another idea being floated if they can’t get agreement from all sides is to bring just enough members back to establish a quorum — ensuring that enough of the lawmakers would vote in favor of the package for it to pass.
Even with the potential hiccups, McGovern’s recommendation isn’t exactly a surprise. House leaders in both parties have been on the receiving end of an increasing pressure campaign from anxious lawmakers who are worried about returning to the Capitol.
Not only are the logistics a nightmare for members in many districts, with both airlines and Amtrak operating on significantly reduced schedules. But with coronavirus spreading in the Capitol among lawmakers and staff, many members are wary of catching it themselves.
Pelosi quickly shot down the idea of remote voting both in private meetings and at her public news conference when Democrats started raising the idea two weeks ago. But as the virus spread across the country, infecting relatives, friends and even colleagues, some Democrats continued to pressure the speaker to reconsider the idea.
On a caucus call last week, Pelosi announced McGovern would study the different ways lawmakers could vote on the third package of coronavirus relief funding, possibly without returning to Washington.
The idea has since been the topic of private leadership calls and senior Democrats have also reached out to Republican leaders to gauge the appetite on the GOP side. A Republican aide confirmed the discussions Monday.
“It’s a possibility but no decision has been made yet,” the GOP aide said.
House Democrats are expected to discuss the idea further on a conference call Tuesday afternoon.
Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.
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