House approves historic rules change to allow remote voting during COVID-19 pandemic


Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wears a mask to protect herself and others from COVID-19, known as coronavirus, as she arrives to hold her weekly press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 30, 2020.

(CNN) — House Democrats on Friday approved a rules change to allow lawmakers to vote while away from Washington during the coronavirus pandemic, a move that will allow the chamber to operate remotely for the first time in its more than 200-year history.

Democrats approved the rules change, which stands to significantly alter the way the House conducts legislative business, over Republican opposition with a vote of 217-189.

Republicans protested the rules change as a partisan power grab that will upend institutional tradition, while Democrats argued the change was needed to ensure that lawmakers can continue to legislate safely and effectively amid the pandemic.

Lawmakers will next vote on a Covid-19 aid package with a price tag of more than $3 trillion, which House Democratic leaders have expressed confidence will pass despite Republican opposition as well as pushback from some moderate and progressive Democrats.

The rules change will authorize temporary implementation of remote voting by proxy in the event of a public health emergency due to the coronavirus. It also allows for remote committee proceedings during the pandemic.

Under the rules change, lawmakers who cannot or do not want to travel during the pandemic will be allowed to designate proxies by sending letters to the House clerk. Proxies will be required to “receive exact written instruction” from the members who are using them as proxies, according to the House Rules Committee.

Any given member can serve as a proxy only for up to 10 other lawmakers.

Once enacted, the authorization for remote voting and remote committee work will remain in place for a 45-day period, after which it could be extended if the public health emergency persists.

The resolution also greenlights higher-tech options for remote voting in the future after a system is developed and certified, directing the chair of the House Administration Committee to study the feasibility of using technology to vote remotely in the House. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, has suggested members could one day utilize technologies like FaceTime to call House clerks to cast their votes.

Pelosi moves to lock down support for $3 trillion aid bill amid defections

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi working to lock in the support for the $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill ahead of a final vote.

Multiple sources involved in the vote-counting effort say that Pelosi is working hard behind-the-scenes to ensure she has the votes for House passage of the relief bill.

Pelosi told CNN on Friday, “Yes, we do” when asked if she has the votes to ensure passage of the relief bill. Asked how hard she’s working the vote, she said: “like normal.” She said she’s “confident” the bill will pass.

Pelosi wouldn’t respond to a question about opposition from her freshman members, saying she was now focused on the GOP’s motion-to-recommit, which is an effort to kill the bill ahead of final passage.

House Democratic leaders have argued that the sweeping aid package, which allocates funding for state and local governments, coronavirus testing and a new round of direct payments to Americans, is urgently needed to address the unfolding crisis. The legislation, which reflects Democratic priorities and was not a product of bipartisan negotiations, would stand as the largest relief package in US history.

As of now, there are a number of undecided Democrats, and some are signaling they will vote no, including Michigan Rep. Haley Stevens, a freshman, according to two sources. Stevens has been the subject of an intense lobbying campaign.

Others say they are uncommitted, like freshman Dean Phillips of Minnesota, who told CNN: “I’m watching the debate, on the phone with constituents, and still contemplating my vote. Could go either way.”

The leadership is also focusing on other members like Susan Wild of Pennsylvania, Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, Tom O’Halleran of Arizona.

Democratic leaders believe they will get the votes, but it could be close. The vote is expected to wrap up in the 9 p.m. ET hour but could slip later.

The relief package is not expected to be taken up by the Senate, however, due to Republican opposition. The White House has issued a veto threat, citing “misguided provisions” sought in the legislation.

Pelosi, a California Democrat, defended the bill on Thursday against attacks that it is partisan, saying, “We’re putting our offer on the table. We’re open to negotiation.”

As she lobbies her caucus to fall in line behind the $3 trillion stimulus bill, Pelosi told her colleagues on a private caucus call last night: “If you vote against this and all this funding for your state, then you have to go home and defend it.”

“And if you can defend that no vote, then you’re a better politician than me,” Pelosi told her caucus, according to a Democratic source taking notes on the call.

Most Republicans have dismissed the aid package as a liberal wish list and declared it dead on arrival in the Senate. They say it is too soon to move ahead with another far-reaching legislative response to the pandemic without first waiting to see the results of the trillions of dollars in aid that have already been enacted.

Republicans have criticized the rules change proposal to allow remote voting and remote committee work as a partisan power grab that will upend institutional tradition. Democratic leaders say remote voting by proxy will ensure lawmakers can continue to legislate safely and effectively during the pandemic.

With the four previous coronavirus relief measures, House Democrats collaborated with Senate Republicans and the Trump administration to negotiate bipartisan agreements. But it remains unclear whether and when a bipartisan consensus can be reached on yet another package, despite the fact that the American public and US economy continue to feel the devastating impact of the disease. 

Democratic leaders face pushback within their own ranks

A number of moderates have criticized the bill for not having widespread bipartisan support, while progressives have argued it does not go far enough to address the fallout from the pandemic.

Freshman Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, Ben McAdams of Utah, Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Cindy Axne of Iowa, and Elaine Luria, of Virginia all said ahead of the vote that they opposed it and indicated they plan to vote against it.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, also said on Friday that she will vote against the bill.

“I unfortunately will be voting no on the bill,” Jayapal said. She and a number of other progressives had been frustrated that their paycheck guarantee proposal was not included in the bill.

The legislation unveiled earlier this week also did not include recurring monthly payments, which some progressives had pushed for.

The legislation would provide nearly $1 trillion for state and local governments, a $200 billion fund for essential worker hazard pay, an additional $75 billion for Covid-19 testing, tracing and isolation efforts, and a new round of direct payments to Americans of up to $6,000 per household, according to the House Appropriations Committee.

States are facing major tax revenue shortfalls in the wake of the economic devastation, and deficits could total $650 billion over three years, according to an estimate from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. The budget gaps are forcing states to look at laying off workers and cutting funding for education, public colleges, health and human services, parks and recreation, and even public safety.

Members to observe social distancing during Friday votes

As with prior House votes during the pandemic, lawmakers will be asked to adhere to social distancing protocols when they return to the chamber on Friday. Washington remains under a stay-at-home order, which was recently extended until June 8.

A notice sent to all members from the attending physician and sergeant-at-arms advises lawmakers to maintain 6 feet of social distance anytime they are in the Capitol. The use of face coverings is “strongly recommended” for members and staff during “any proceeding when it may be not possible to maintain” that amount of separation.

They also recommended that members avoid using elevators in the Capitol, which in normal circumstances become packed tight with lawmakers as members travel to and from the House floor for votes.

Voting will be conducted in alphabetical groups of roughly 72 members each to minimize the number of people on the House floor at any given time. Members will also be asked to exit the chamber floor quickly after they vote, to avoid large congregations and to allow voting to proceed as quickly as possible.

This story has been updated to include additional reaction and background information Friday.

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