Anxiety grows in Capitol as lawmakers weigh remote voting

The House physician’s office had been aggressive in tracking down potential contacts, compiling a list of people who were in close proximity and asking questions like whether they shook hands. From that list, the physician’s office then called each person individually to ask more questions, and further trace any interactions.

Lawmakers and staff were told to isolate themselves if they’d been in close quarters with either McAdams or Diaz-Balart, and any relevant offices were disinfected immediately.

For McAdams, who developed symptoms on Saturday night, all contacts were traced back to Thursday night. The Utah Democrat had been in contact with more than a dozen lawmakers and staff members on Friday night, socializing in one member’s office as the chamber awaited a vote in the House that wasn’t called until after midnight.

Diaz-Balart, meanwhile, was one of several deputy whips who participated in a 90-minute meeting in House Minority Whip Steve Scalise’s office on Friday, where they joined in on a Republican conference call and then watched Trump’s press conference on TV. Now, the core of the GOP whip’s team – including Scalise — will be sidelined in self-isolation until March 27.

But the hope among leadership is that the next stimulus package will be so bipartisan that their vote-counting operation — and even the House Rules Committee — won’t be as necessary as it would under normal circumstances. There’s also been discussions about “pre-whipping” legislation, according to Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), one of the deputy whips who has been forced to self-quarantine.

“I very much want to vote on the next bill, but if they have to move ahead because it’s an emergency, I understand,” said Cole, who is also the top Republican on the House Rules Committee.

“So far, we haven’t lost many members [on coronavirus bills] and votes haven’t been so close,” he added, before acknowledging: “but they could be.”

One scenario floated by GOP lawmakers and aides: if they can pass legislation by unanimous consent — or if quarantined members have to miss the roll call vote — they can just formally enter into the record how they would have voted on the bill.

Even before the two lawmakers were diagnosed, there was growing anxiety among House members and staff about the inevitability of the virus spreading on Capitol Hill. Several staffers had already tested positive in both chambers. And while congressional leaders are taking steps to limit physical interactions during votes and meetings, the very nature of the job makes it nearly impossible for members to socially distance themselves. Everything from elevator buttons to the Capitol’s underground trains could become a hotbed for the virus.

The stress about potential infections in the Capitol complex has been compounded by the gravity of the legislative challenge ahead: a $1 trillion package being drafted in mere days with the entire economy hinging on the result.

“The mood is very very somber,” one senior Democratic aide said. “I think we realize we’re staring down one of the worst public health crises we’ve ever faced, and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.”

Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Van Taylor (R-Texas) led a bipartisan letter on Wednesday night calling for remote voting, with signatures from more than 50 members.

“When it comes to social distancing and public health best practices, Congress should be an example, not an exception,” Porter wrote on Twitter.

The idea of remote voting has also drawn attention in the Senate, despite McConnell dismissing the suggestion earlier in the week. As concerns grow across the Capitol about the rapid spread of the deadly virus — which is especially harmful to the elderly — more senators raised the possibility Thursday.

“I think it’s important if we’re talking about weeks or months,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said when asked about the possibility of the Senate working remotely. “We probably cannot keep operating all in one location.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), was looking at the possibility of allowing senators to vote via telephone in the case of a national emergency.

“Don’t want to make the Senate telephonic, where you call in your vote. That would not be what the Senate’s all about,” Schumer told NPR. “But during this emergency, we would allow that. We’re looking at allowing that to happen. We think it’s constitutionally allowed.”

Separately, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced a bill Thursday that would allow Senate leaders to institute remote voting for up to 30 days during a national crisis.

Some more senior senators, however, have dismissed the idea. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told reporters on Wednesday: “It is my understanding that there will not be remote voting.”

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have opted for conference calls. And at least one member, Sen. Sherrod Brown, has decided to drive himself to Washington, instead of taking a plane. Senate Republicans are continuing to ignore advice from the CDC — and even Trump — and met in person for lunch Thursday.

McConnell is moving swiftly to pass a third phase of Congress’ response to the coronavirus — a trillion-dollar stimulus package with billions of dollars directed toward massive industries and small businesses and direct cash payments for Americans impacted by the virus.

“We’re not talking about so-called bailouts for firms that made reckless decisions…none of these firms — not corner stores, not pizza parlors, not airlines — brought this on themselves,” McConnell said Thursday. “We’re talking about loans which must be repaid.”

The Kentucky Republican is expected to introduce text of the GOP proposal later Thursday and then begin negotiations with Schumer.

House Democrats, meanwhile, are working on a counter-proposal, hoping to use that as a bargaining chip in discussions with the Senate. Schumer and Pelosi have repeatedly called for “four corner” negotiations between them, McConnell and McCarthy on the third stimulus package, an idea McConnell has dismissed.

McConnell has said the Senate would not leave until it passes the “Phase 3” legislation. But on the floor Thursday, the GOP leader said that wouldn’t be the last action Congress takes to address the coronavirus pandemic.

The administration has already asked for another $48 billion in emergency supplemental funding to address the crisis — a request McConnell said his chamber would immediately begin work on after moving the “phase 3” bill.

“Immediately after we pass this legislation, Congress must begin a bipartisan, bicameral appropriations process to address the administration’s new supplemental funding request,” McConnell said on the floor.

“We have to beat back this virus.”

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