WASHINGTON — Bipartisan efforts to encourage the Senate to adopt procedures for remote voting are gaining steam, with at least two more Republicans speaking out for the need to make operational changes in the face of the coronavirus crisis and one day after a Senate colleague revealed he tested positive for the virus.
Republican Sens. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina endorsed the Senate moving to remote voting during the growing COVID-19 pandemic. They join an effort led by Illinois Democrat Richard J. Durbin and Ohio Republican Rob Portman, who are calling for limited-time authority for remote voting during emergency situations.
“I totally support the idea of remote voting so the Senate can continue to operate during this crisis,” Graham tweeted. “We should make this change before the Senate leaves town.”
The positive diagnosis of Kentucky Republican Rand Paul with the new coronavirus seems to have more lawmakers considering the consequences of gathering together to vote and the threat of spreading the disease among themselves and others working in the Capitol.
“I’m ready to support remote voting. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. It is time to bring the Senate into the 21st century,” Cramer said in a tweet Monday.
The Durbin-Portman resolution would give the Senate majority and minority leaders joint authority to allow secure remote voting for up to 30 days during emergency situations such as the current pandemic. Under the measure, the Senate could vote to extend the initial authority in additional 30-day increments.
The Senate has taken some measures to encourage social distancing during votes, including doubling the time that each vote is open to 30 minutes and urging lawmakers to vote promptly and then exit the chamber. But that guidance from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has gone unheeded by many. Senate clerk staff have posted signage at their desks asking senators to step back and keep their distance.
McConnell said last week that the Senate will continue to vote in-person and votes on Monday went ahead, but he has not addressed the remote voting issue directly since Paul tested positive.
Paul has initiated a self-quarantine, and his positive test led Utah Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney to do so as well because of time they spent with Paul. Romney’s concerns are not only for himself, but also for his wife, Ann, who has multiple sclerosis and could have a much harder time fighting the virus if exposed.
Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar announced Monday that her husband has been hospitalized with COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. Klobuchar said, however, that the couple have been apart during his illness.
“My husband has coronavirus. I love him & not being able to be by his side is one of the hardest things about this disease,” Klobuchar tweeted. “So many are going through this & much worse. I pray for him & you & meanwhile I will do all I can to get help to the American people.”
Klobuchar said in a Medium post that she and her husband, John Bessler, had been in “different places for the last two weeks” and that because she was “outside the 14-day period for getting sick,” doctors advised her that she did not need to be tested.
After a persistent temperature and a “bad, bad” cough, Bessler began coughing up blood, Klobuchar said, prompting him to get a coronavirus test and a chest X-ray. He checked into a hospital in Virginia and “now has pneumonia and is on oxygen but not a ventilator,” Klobuchar said.
Arizona’s Senate delegation spoke out Sunday night about Paul’s decision not to isolate himself while he awaited the results of his test, a time that included him using the Senate gym and pool.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, said on Twitter that while she has “never commented about a fellow Senator’s choices/actions,” Paul’s actions were “absolutely irresponsible.”
“You cannot be near other people while waiting for coronavirus test results,” she said. “It endangers others & likely increases the spread of the virus.”
Martha McSally, her Republican home-state colleague, said she “couldn’t agree more” with Sinema.
“As we ask all Americans to sacrifice their livelihoods and alter their behavior to save lives, we must ourselves model appropriate #coronavirus behavior,” McSally said in a tweet. “No one is too important to disregard guidance to self-quarantine pending test results.”
Paul responded to the criticism Monday, saying that even though he did not have any symptoms, he sought to be tested for the virus because of his extensive travel and because an August 2019 lung surgery would put him at high risk for complications.
“For those who want to criticize me for lack of quarantine, realize that if the rules on testing had been followed to a tee, I would never have been tested and would still be walking around the halls of the Capitol. The current guidelines would not have called for me to get tested nor quarantined. It was my extra precaution, out of concern for my damaged lung, that led me to get tested,” Paul said in a statement.
“The broader the testing and the less finger-pointing we have, the better,” said Paul.
Calls for remote voting have also grown in the House, where two lawmakers have tested positive and 435 members gathering for a vote makes following social distancing protocols nearly impossible.
California Democrats Katie Porter and Eric Swalwell submitted a formal request Monday to the House Rules Committee for a temporary change to House rules to allow for remote voting during national emergencies.
“The science is clear: there are major risks associated with Members trekking from every corner of this country to meet together in defiance of CDC guidance and state orders to shelter in place,” Porter said.
Porter pointed to the double standard of Congress and health officials asking schools, businesses and local governments to practice social distancing and to work remotely if possible, but Congress not setting the example themselves.
Porter and Swalwell countered constitutional concerns that have been raised against remote voting.
“Article I, Section 5 says: ‘Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings.’ I believe this is authority for a house of Congress to use remote voting, especially given our emergency situation,” they write, citing law professor Erwin Chemerinsky.
They also cited the 1892 Supreme Court case of United States v. Ballin, which approved a change to the House’s quorum requirements. The decision said that the Constitution “has prescribed no method for determining one is present.”
During a House Democratic Caucus conference call on Thursday, Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts told his colleagues he was studying the feasibility of remote voting options and presented a report on House rules governing voting. McGovern solicited feedback on alternative voting procedures from his colleagues.
“I’m gratified to see bicameral, bipartisan support growing for remote voting during this emergency, and I’ll keep pushing to get this done,” Porter said in a statement.
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