House Readies Historic Changes to Allow Remote Voting During Pandemic

WASHINGTON — Democratic leaders plan to move this week to change the rules of the House of Representatives to allow lawmakers to cast votes remotely for the first time in its 231-year history, a major concession to the constraints created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and the majority leader, advised lawmakers on Tuesday that they were likely to vote on Thursday on the new rules, which would temporarily allow members to designate another lawmaker to cast votes for them by proxy if they are unable to travel to the Capitol themselves. He framed it as a common-sense decision to help the 430-member body function more smoothly as the virus alters American life and forces millions of people to shelter in place to slow its spread.

“We want to be able to do the people’s work, notwithstanding the directions to remain at distance,” Mr. Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday.

House Republican leaders said they were opposed to the plan, and urged their members to vote against it. Either way, Democrats have more than enough votes to push through the change themselves.

The Republican-controlled Senate, a smaller, clubbier body whose members are even more reluctant to dispatch with tradition, is unlikely to follow suit. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has firmly rejected the idea. On Tuesday afternoon, after the Senate passed a $484 billion coronavirus relief bill by voice vote — the only way to do business since most senators are absent from the capital — Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, tried unsuccessfully to force a change in the rules to allow emergency remote voting. Mr. McConnell blocked the move.

The coming changes in the House have been weeks in the making. Many of the chamber’s younger members have been arguing aggressively that remote voting would model good behavior for the country, keep their older colleagues — one-third of the House members are at least 65 — safe and allow for greater continuity in a time of national crisis. But the leaders had been hesitant to discard precedent, particularly when Congress is being called upon to enact sweeping policies to respond to the virus.

Under its current rules, the House can pass measures only if no lawmaker objects or if members travel to vote in person, as they are expected to do on Thursday when, in addition to the rules change, the House will consider the $484 billion relief package for small businesses straining under the effects of the pandemic.

The proxy voting arrangement is something of a low-tech compromise between competing proposals for how to proceed. Under the current plan, devised by Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts and the chairman of the Rules Committee, any member of Congress could submit his or her vote to the House in writing. It would then be entered into the record by another lawmaker present in the Capitol, who would not be allowed to change his or her colleague’s vote.

Still, many Republicans have chafed at the plan and could oppose Thursday’s vote en masse. Republican leaders indicated they were irked that the Democrats did not bring them further into the planning process, but many of their members said they simply saw no reason for Congress not to show up in person when other essential workers all over the country, including President Trump, are doing so.

“We should be here in person to vote,” said Representative Andy Harris, Republican of Maryland. “That’s the way it’s been done for 200 years. That’s the way we should do it now.”

Mr. Harris, who can easily drive to the Capitol from his home, was wearing a plastic face shield when he spoke to reporters on Tuesday.

Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Rules Committee, said he was “extremely skeptical” that the plan could work. He noted in an interview that Congress continued to meet during the Civil War, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and during the Spanish influenza — and said it should continue to now.

“I don’t think this seems remotely workable if you don’t have bipartisan buy-in,” Mr. Cole warned.

Democrats seemed ready to contemplate even broader changes. In a separate letter to colleagues on Tuesday, Mr. Hoyer pushed to go further, making the case for voting and convening hearings through videoconferencing technology, like FaceTime or Zoom.

“Beyond implementing the proxy voting as a first step, we ought to use this time as an opportunity to prepare for Congress to be able to work according to its full capabilities even with social and physical distancing guidelines in place,” he wrote.

Those more ambitious changes could present constitutional, as well as security, challenges that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has tried to avoid.

Proposals like Mr. Hoyer’s have also run into a more basic roadblock: Many of the House’s members are older and technologically unsophisticated. For members who struggle on regular caucus conference calls to figure out how to mute and umute their cellphones, voting by FaceTime would be no easy task.

House leaders also continue to study how they could effectively move online for the time being committee hearings that constitute much of Congress’s oversight and policy work.

Senators, under the direction of Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri and the chairman of the Rules Committee, are considering allowing some committee hearings to be conducted remotely. If they could agree to a plan, Republicans could resume work on one of the hallmarks of their majority: confirming conservative judges to lifetime appointments on the federal bench.

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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