WASHINGTON — Two senators want to change the Senate’s rules and allow them to vote on legislation remotely during times of national crisis, such as the current coronavirus outbreak.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Republican Sen. Rob Portman announced their resolution Thursday to change the Senate’s standing rules, which require senators to show up and vote in person.
The resolution is not tied to the coronavirus outbreak specifically but would certainly apply to it. In a joint statement, the senators argued that events like a public health crisis, national emergency, or terrorist attack could prevent senators from voting in person. Their resolution would give the Senate's majority and minority leaders the joint authority to allow “secure remote voting” for up to 30 days. Remote voting could then be renewed for further 30-day periods.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already rejected the idea of remote voting, and he is backed by Senate Rules Committee Chair Roy Blunt. Instead, McConnell stretched voting times out so senators could show up one or two at a time instead of all gathering at once.
This week, senators continued to show up to the Capitol to vote in person, inconsistently following social distancing guidelines to stay 6 feet away from other people. Several senators said they need to continue physically showing up to the Senate to show leadership.
There is a similar push for remote voting in the House of Representatives, where two members have tested positive for COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Even before those infections were announced, two dozen members signed a letter calling on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to let members vote remotely.
Pelosi has so far refused to change the voting rules — but the House, currently in recess, will now not return until it is needed to vote on the next economic aid package.
The House's attending physician released a statement Thursday saying his office has taken “appropriate actions” to identify individuals who may have come into contact with the infected House members and require quarantine. The statement said members who come into contact with others on the House floor “would be considered to be low risk exposure and no additional measures are required other than for them to report any illness should become ill.”
During a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, Durbin also questioned how congressional committees will meet during the coronavirus outbreak. Currently, senators have to gather together in committee rooms. He called for allowing teleconferencing.