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COVID-19 diagnoses force leaders’ hands on schedule, alternative voting procedures

Hoyer says ‘all options’ are under consideration for changes to voting

UPDATED 5:18 P.M. | House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer announced Thursday that the House will change its schedule and possibly its voting procedures as the reality of two House members testing positive this week for COVID-19 sets in.

As members and staff test positive, and with at least 20 lawmakers in self-quarantine, lawmakers have been pushed to consider with more urgency how they can safely legislate as the coronavirus crisis spreads.

“The House will not return to session until we are in a position to vote on the third piece of emergency legislation to respond to the economic impact of this crisis,” Hoyer said in a “Dear Colleague” letter Thursday.

He said the schedule changes are in light of guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advising against gatherings of more than 10 people. Hoyer said the House will adjust its voting procedures to follow the CDC’s recommendations for social distancing.

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“No decisions have been made on exactly what these changes will be, but we will be discussing all options,” he said.

Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Utah Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams were the first members of Congress to disclose their COVID-19 diagnoses on Wednesday evening, following positive tests. Both lawmakers fell ill shortly after voting in the House on a coronavirus relief package early Saturday morning, when more than 400 members gathered and mingled together in the House chamber.

[Diaz-Balart, McAdams are first members of Congress to report positive coronavirus test]

Rep. Ilhan Omar on Thursday cited the Diaz-Balart and McAdams diagnoses, along with positive tests of Hill staffers, as impetus for congressional leaders to explore alternative voting options.

“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,” the Minnesota Democrat said.

Omar said she signed on to a letter led by fellow freshman Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., asking leadership to provide members the opportunity to vote remotely.

[Pandemic ignites interest in remote voting; McConnell, Pelosi say no]

“I hope that leadership really listens to our call and really makes the necessary adjustments,” she said. “We are asking employers and employees throughout this country to be flexible, to be creative, to find ways to cope because of this crisis. And so as members of Congress we also need to be flexible, we need to be creative and we need to find alternative ways to do our business as we’ve asked everyone else to, and to not really continue business as usual when the country is watching.”

During a House Democratic Caucus conference call on Thursday, Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts told his colleagues he was studying the feasibility of remote voting options and presented a report on House rules governing voting. McGovern solicited feedback on alternative voting procedures from his colleagues, according to a statement from Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

This week the Senate altered its voting patterns to allow for social distancing. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Wednesday that any votes will be conducted as 30-minute votes rather than the usual 15 minutes in order to stagger senators’ presence in the chamber.

McConnell encouraged senators to leave promptly after voting and to not congregate in the well for the safety of clerks and staff in the front of the chamber.

“I think we’ll be able to get through the voting that will occur, in all likelihood, later today without violating any of the safety precautions that have been recommended to us by the Capitol physician and others,” McConnell said.

Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., introduced a bipartisan resolution Thursday to amend Senate rules to allow senators to vote remotely during a national crisis. The resolution would give the majority and minority leaders joint authority to allow the Senate to vote remotely for up to 30 days, at which point the Senate would have to renew remote voting authority.

“We need to bring voting in the Senate into the 21st century so that our important work can continue even under extraordinary circumstances. Bob Dylan was right: ‘the times they are a-changin’,” Durbin said in a statement.

For days, the Illinois Democrat has been calling for changes to allow senators to vote while dispersed. The proposal would apply to emergency situations like the current pandemic but could also be activated in case of a terror attack or another catastrophic disruption to travel and safety.

“In times of a national emergency, the Senate must be able to convene and act expeditiously even if we can’t be together in person. 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. While I know there is resistance to changing a Senate tradition to allow for remote voting during national emergencies, I believe this is an important issue and worthy of robust discussion amongst our Senate colleagues,” Portman said in a statement.

Still, some leaders are not convinced that will happen. Sen. Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican who is chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee and is the Republican Policy Committee chairman, told CNN: “Not going to happen. The speaker doesn’t want to do it. The leader doesn’t want it to do it. It’s not going to happen. We are going to continue to vote in person.”

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