WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic has struck the legislative seat of power in Washington, with two members of the House testing positive and others rushing to self-quarantine amid growing questions about how soon Congress can return to its regular routine.
The news Wednesday evening that two House members contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, reporting symptoms hours after they stood on a crowded House floor among hundreds of their colleagues to vote for a virus relief package — has heightened calls for working and voting remotely, a break with centuries of tradition.
Lawmakers of both major parties and both chambers are increasingly questioning whether it’s safe for elected officials — many of whom are over age 60 and more vulnerable to the virus — to work in the Capitol on the next-phase emergency aid package or fly to Washington in the coming week.
“Someone needs to devise a very secure way of remote voting, with fingerprints or facial recognition,” said Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., on Thursday morning. “I hate the idea, because I think our face-to-face contact is so important, but it’s inevitable.”
Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., jointly introduced a measure Thursday to allow remote voting in the Senate for renewable 30-day periods, which would amount to a procedural sea change for a typically hidebound institution.
“I think it’s time for us to turn to this,” Portman said Thursday, noting his support for a similar House proposal two decades ago: “At the time we didn’t have, frankly, the electronic communications we have today. Now, we do. We have the ability to do it in a secure way, an encrypted way, in a way that would protect the fundamental right to vote.”
The situation highlights the serious challenge facing lawmakers as the outbreak hits the Capitol. Members of Congress are needed to negotiate and pass legislation stabilizing an economy in free fall and stemming the pandemic. Yet ironing out policy differences and voting in proximity to other lawmakers could be life-threatening, contravening recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that no more than 10 people congregate at a time.
Word from Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and Ben McAdams, D-Utah, that they had tested positive for the deadly disease has further set lawmakers and congressional staffers on edge. Both men were present and working at the Capitol last week.
Their announcements led four members of the House Republican whip team, including Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, to self-quarantine after they spent an extended period Friday in Scalise’s office with Diaz-Balart, a deputy whip. Democratic Reps. Anthony Brindisi of New York, Stephanie Murphy of Florida and Kendra Horn of Oklahoma announced that they were self-quarantining due to contact with McAdams, a fellow member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition.
Reps. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., and Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., also said they were self-quarantining after contact with a lawmaker who tested positive.
The House’s attending physician, Brian Monahan, alerted members who may have been in contact with the two lawmakers and sought to identify exposed areas and spaces to be treated by the Capitol architect, according to an update sent to members Wednesday night by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Monahan’s office said in the statement that “instances where the affected Members may have briefly come into contact with other colleagues on the House Floor would be considered to be low-risk exposures and no additional measures are required other than for them to report any illness should they become ill.”
President Donald Trump on Thursday said of the infected congressmen: “Hopefully, they’re all going to get better, and it’s one of those things. It’s Congress; it’s one of those things.”
With no such remote-voting infrastructure in place — and Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., having ruled it out for now — both chambers are moving forward with business as usual, with some “social distancing” modifications.
Senators remained in Washington on Thursday, huddling to hash out a $1 trillion rescue plan that could include sending checks to many Americans. While Republican senators usually meet as a group in a cramped Capitol room just off the Senate floor, on Tuesday and Wednesday they instead relocated to a much larger room in the Russell Senate Office Building where tables and chairs were spaced far apart.
House lawmakers left Washington after voting for the second-phase aid package early Saturday, but senior Democrats have indicated that the rank and file will be summoned back to Washington eventually to vote on the next emergency legislation. In the interim, members of both parties have kept in touch through conference calls and other telecommunications.
In a call Thursday, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., the chairman of the Rules Committee, told Democratic lawmakers that he was studying the feasibility of remote voting, a move endorsed by Pelosi. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the House would try to pass the next-phase emergency stimulus package by unanimous consent but said it was unlikely.
In a letter Thursday, Hoyer said leaders would not call the chamber back into session until that legislation is ready for a vote; he acknowledged the risks in-person voting could pose.
“I share the concerns of many members regarding the number of Members on the House floor at any one time,” he wrote. “I therefore expect that the House will adjust our voting procedures in order to follow the CDC’s recommendations. No decisions have been made on exactly what these changes will be, but we will be discussing all options.”
McConnell this week lengthened the time available for senators to cast votes and encouraged senators to vote quickly and leave the Senate floor rather than engage in their usual conversations with colleagues and aides. While the floor and surrounding hallways were sparser than usual — public tours were canceled last week — that advice was not uniformly followed; small groups of senators could be seen gathered in the chamber Wednesday.
By Thursday, some lawmakers acknowledged that the status quo might not be tenable. “I think we are going to have to put ourselves on different footing,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.
“The work of Congress must continue, but it need not put people at risk unnecessarily,” Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., said in a statement advocating for remote voting.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who self-quarantined for three days after coming in contact with a confirmed carrier, said he felt safe in the Capitol.
“I got tested, I’m negative, for the moment. You know, here are the numbers — if you get this thing, the odds are dramatically on your side, unless you’re in a very compromised situation,” Graham told reporters.
Before Diaz-Balart and McAdams disclosed that they had contracted the disease, a bipartisan group of 50 members implored Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to allow remote voting in the House.
The letter, sent Wednesday morning and first reported by CNN, encourages leaders to pass a rule enabling remote voting and “hold itself to the same high standard that it is asking of the nation: to put public health and safety first.”
“While Congress is an institution with a proud history, we cannot stand on tradition if it puts lives — and our ability to be the voice of our constituents — at risk,” the letter says, later adding: “Congress also should be no exception to the public health safeguards … We are undermining our unified bipartisan message to the American people when we come together in the crowded House floor to vote.”
Telecommuting has never been done in Congress, where rules require members to be “present” and voting. While there were discussions about coming up with an alternative after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and ensuing anthrax scare, leaders never coalesced around a doomsday-situation plan that would allow the legislature to continue to function in a time of crisis.
Changing congressional rules to allow remote voting could be complicated and ultimately require lawmakers to physically vote in the Capitol in any case. While rules changes could pass in either chamber with the unanimous consent of its members, any one lawmaker could force an in-person vote.