Congressional leaders are resisting calls to let lawmakers vote remotely, a dispute pitting the scourge of the coronavirus against two centuries of tradition that underscores Washington’s struggle to adapt to recommendations that evolve daily about how to handle the pandemic.
Advocates of the voting change cite the health perils of air travel at a time when health experts want people to avoid crowds. They argue that as infections spread, it may become all but impossible for many lawmakers to journey to the Capitol because of the growing risk of getting the virus.
“There was a time when physical presence was the only way to make sure that a person was present and voting,” No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said. “I think that technology gives us other options and we better exercise them.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., put his foot down firmly against letting senators vote electronically from wherever they might be.
“We’ll not be doing that,” McConnell told reporters in a Capitol TV studio in which the number of reporters was limited to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. He suggested his chamber might extend roll call votes beyond the traditional 15 minutes and allow senators to vote in small groups, rather than all at once.
“We will deal with the social distancing issue without fundamentally changing Senate rules,” McConnell said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., whose hometown of San Francisco is among many Bay Area communities whose residents have been ordered to stay home, has also opposed the idea, according to lawmakers who’ve spoken to her.
The dispute comes amid a confusing jumble of government decrees aimed at halting the coronavirus’ spread, edicts that often grow stricter by the day and vary by jurisdiction. Schools and restaurants have been closed in many states but not all, and people are being ordered to stay home for two weeks or more in some communities but not others.
That inconsistency was on clear display Tuesday, the day Senate Republicans and Democrats typically hold separate party lunches. GOP senators moved their meal to a larger room in a Senate office building — an ornate chamber where major hearings on topics ranging from the sinking of the Titanic to Watergate have been held. Democrats chose to simply have a lunchtime conference call.
The idea of remote voting, while not new, would present hurdles, such as assuring that the system is secure. Lawmakers would also have to overcome a reluctance to be seen as shirking their jobs if they’re not present for votes.
It would also be a sharp break from history. Currently members must cast votes during roll calls in person on the House and Senate floors.
For example, the Senate not only requires that each member “declare his assent or dissent to the question” but even forbids any effort to suspend that rule.
Supporters say remote voting would reduce infections that members might incur and spread to their families and coworkers; help lawmakers understand the coronavirus’ impact on their communities; and let them show they are practicing the behavior the nation’s leaders want the public to adopt.
“There’s no reason not to model for our country what we’re asking our fellow Americans to do right now,” said Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif.
Last week, Pelosi rebuffed House Democrats at a closed-door meeting who’d suggested letting lawmakers leave the Capitol and vote electronically from their home districts, participants in the session said.
“We are the captains of the ship. We are the last to leave,” Pelosi said, according to a person who described the private meeting on condition of anonymity.
Porter, a freshman, said she encountered resistance from Pelosi when she raised the idea with her last week on the House floor. Porter is circulating a letter calling for a rules change to allow remote voting during the emergency, along with Reps. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., and Van Taylor, R-Texas.
“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.
Porter said Tuesday that when she handed Pelosi a copy of the proposal, Pelosi “took it, folded it in half.” Porter said that as of Tuesday evening, the letter had 45 cosponsors, including at least two Republicans.
“I respectfully think that the goal is to evacuate the ship, to get everybody off safely,” Porter said in an interview.
Nationwide, restrictions are tightening as the number of reported infections and deaths mount daily. While some officials initially advised against events with crowds exceeding 1,000, that number has gradually dropped and President Donald Trump on Monday suggested avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. In the United States, about 6,500 people have been diagnosed and more than 110 have died.
Because ideas about responding to the outbreak change so swiftly, no one is certain whether the opposition Pelosi and McConnell have voiced will hold as the virus spreads.
“What seems unrealistic today may not seem so unrealistic tomorrow,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va.
Lawmakers have discussed having fewer committee hearings or holding them remotely. Many members of Congress have already curtailed face-to-face meetings with visitors, and many of their staffs are already working from home.
Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, top Republican on the House Administration Committee, said lawmakers have met daily with Congress’ doctors and other officials to discuss how the House should function during the crisis. Davis said they’ve discussed ideas like frequently cleaning the buttons on the electronic devices members use to record their votes.
But others say even with such steps, it’s travel to Washington that’s the toughest problem to overcome.
“The harder part is getting people there, getting folks that have to fly from all over the country, or just getting folks in their 70s, 80s or 90s driving from New York or driving from Florida,” said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va.
According to a 2018 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the average age of the House the previous year was nearly 58. It was almost 62 in the Senate, which the study said made that chamber among the oldest in its history.