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Opening of 117th Congress will be different due to pandemic

Speaker election and swearing in likely to be done in groups, amid other planning complications

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., swears in members in the Capitol's House chamber on the first day of the 116th Congress on Jan. 3, 2019. This scene will not be replicated next year, due to the pandemic.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., swears in members in the Capitol's House chamber on the first day of the 116th Congress on Jan. 3, 2019. This scene will not be replicated next year, due to the pandemic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When the 117th Congress convenes in January, COVID-19 precautions will prevent the 435 House members from gathering in the chamber together, so opening day festivities of swearing in members and electing the speaker will look a little different.

House leaders have begun discussing how to carry out the traditions of starting a new Congress while upholding social distancing practices to keep members, staff and Capitol Hill workers safe.

The Democratic leadership team held a call Thursday night to address voting procedures and other details for the opening of the 117th Congress in which several options were discussed and no decisions were made, according to a leadership aide.  

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said some things are easier to plan for than others, like the speaker’s election.

“Voting for speaker is not a problem, because we can vote the same way we do here,” the Maryland Democrat said in an interview Friday.

Hoyer was referring to how the House has been conducting voting during the pandemic: Members in the Capitol vote in staggered groups to prevent crowding in the chamber, and those unable to travel to Washington can vote by proxy.

More complicated is planning for the swearing in of members. Members in Washington can be sworn in groups, Hoyer said. But the tricky part is figuring out how to accommodate those who are unable to travel for health reasons.

“The issue was raised before, and the parliamentarian ruled you had to be there. He ruled essentially you couldn’t be sworn through television,” Hoyer said. “So I don’t know exactly how we’re going to do it for people who are unable to come.”

While that hasn’t been resolved, Hoyer said he personally doesn’t see why swearing in couldn’t be conducted virtually “if we can vote virtually and make big decisions virtually.”

Under the Constitution, opening day of each Congress is supposed to be Jan. 3. In 2021 that falls on a Sunday, so leaders are likely to move the date to Jan. 4 or Jan. 5, which requires both chambers passing a resolution agreeing to the date change.

“We’ve changed it before,” Hoyer said. “I’ve been here, as you know, 40 years. I can’t remember ever being sworn in over a weekend.”

In addition to the speaker’s election and swearing in of members, the House also typically passes its rules package on the opening day of each new Congress. In 2019 the package was split into multiple votes and passed over two days.

Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., on Friday told CQ Roll Call he’s hoping to have a package to present to the Democratic Caucus in a couple of weeks.

“We’ve opened it up and asked people for their advice and their guidance,” he said. “And everybody has an idea. Some of them are good ideas, some of them are OK ideas, some of them are really bad ideas, but we’re vetting them all. So, it’s just taking us a little while.”

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Counting electoral votes

Because the 117th Congress follows a presidential election, the House and Senate by law are supposed to hold a joint session to count the Electoral College votes on Jan. 6. Hoyer said he’d like to prevent all members from being on the floor for that, but social distancing could prove complicated if any members want to raise objections.

“Usually, as I recall, everybody is not in the chamber for the counting,” he said. “But usually there’s never any controversy.”

President Donald Trump is contesting the election results in the courts and on Twitter, but so far he’s produced no evidence of widespread fraud. And on Friday he brought Republican state lawmakers from Michigan to the White House in an apparent effort to lobby them to overturn the state’s results.

If all those efforts fail as expected, Trump could lean on his allies in Congress to object to the counting of Electoral College votes in a last-ditch effort to protest the results.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. That’s down the road still,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., told CQ Roll Call on Friday. “I haven’t really thought about that other than I know that in 2000 they objected repeatedly on Bush,” he said, referring to House members who objected to counting votes for George W. Bush but were not able to get a senator to join them.

One senator and one House member can join together to submit in writing an objection to the counting of any electoral votes. If an objection is raised, the joint session recesses and each chamber meets separately to deliberate and vote. Both chambers must agree to the objection or it fails and the counting resumes.

The Democrat-led House is unlikely to agree to any objections, but the process of having to consider objections and abide by social distancing would be cumbersome.

“I hope that by the time we get to the counting … that we will have resolved the controversies, the courts will have thrown all this junk out and somehow cooler minds will prevail,” Hoyer said.

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