OLYMPIA — Legislative officials are scaling back plans to hold in-person sessions of the Washington House and Senate this month as the omicron wave of COVID-19 rises.
Last year, Democratic leaders in both chambers decided to hold a largely remote legislative session, with committee hearings and floor votes held by teleconference, except for a handful of staff and lawmakers in the House and Senate chambers.
This year, Democratic legislative leaders decided to keep committee meetings remote. But the House and Senate — which each come up with their own policy — planned to allow more lawmakers and some members of the public to attend House and Senate floor sessions.
But the record-level cases brought on by the omicron variant — which includes a spike in Thurston County cases — is changing the plan for the 60-day legislative session that begins Monday, Jan. 10.
House leaders Friday voted along party lines to move temporarily to remote sessions of the House floor, House Chief Clerk Bernard Dean wrote in an email.
“To start the session, House floor operations will occur remotely (as they did in 2021),” wrote Dean. “The House will reassess its operations every two weeks, and may make future adjustments as conditions warrant.”
Dean, the top nonpartisan administrator in the chamber, wrote that the first assessment will take place two weeks after Jan. 10.
Republicans have broadly opposed restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. Currently House officials are being sued by a handful of Republican representatives, challenging the House policy requiring them to show proof of vaccination against COVID.
In a court hearing last month, a Thurston County judge refused to temporarily block the House policy, but hasn’t yet ruled on the merits of the case.
As of Monday, 15 lawmakers — all of them Republicans — haven’t yet provided verification that they are vaccinated against the virus, according to Dean. The House has 98 members, with Democrats holding a 57-41 majority.
Senate leaders are also looking at rolling back their plan in the wake of omicron, according to a spokesperson for Senate Democrats on Monday.
“You can say that in light of spiking Covid numbers the Senate is also looking at revising it’s 2022 session plan and returning to a mostly remote/hybrid format,” spokesperson Aaron Wasser wrote in an email. Lawmakers were having those conversations Monday, and could hold a vote to change Senate policy this week, he added.
The Senate had drafted its own COVID policies that allowed lawmakers and staffers to be on the chamber’s floor, regardless of vaccine status, as long as they had a negative test.
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