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Congress to vote remotely amid coronavirus? Don't count on it

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Congressional rule makers are open to letting lawmakers vote remotely for legislation amid the coronavirus pandemic. But such a change is unlikely soon, even as the coronavirus prevents an increasing number of representatives from voting in-person as is required.  

Even the rule change itself would require members to be present on the House floor.  

"There are people who want us to move forward on remote voting and there are others who have hesitation, which probably means that if you're trying to make that kind of change, it would require votes,"  House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern told CBS News.  

Congressman Tom Cole, the ranking Republican on the committee, said Republicans are "quite split" on the idea of remote voting.     

"The rules are set that to change (how the House casts votes), you have to bring it to the Rules Committee, which means (members) have to show up to change the rules," Cole said.  

Five senators and nearly two dozen House members may not be able to vote in person because they are under quarantine. 

On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tasked McGovern with presenting a report on the issue.  

McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said "there's some merit to the idea but it's more complicated" than "going to a laptop and pressing a button."  

First, there would be tech challenges.  

"We have some members that still have flip phones," he said. "Not every member is up to the same level as the most advanced member in terms of technology. How do you do points of order, how do you deal with issues of changing your vote, we have to think these things through."  

The last significant change was in 1973, when the chamber adopted electronic voting. It took three years.  

Even after the September 11 terrorist attacks, it took nearly three years for the House to changes its rules to provide for rare instances in which a catastrophe occurs and more than half of the members are dead or incapacitated.   

House Rule XX would allow the chamber to continue doing business temporarily even if a quorum cannot appear in the House to vote; it lowers the number of members needed for floor action.  

But, invoking Rule XX to do business with a "provisional quorum" is a lengthy process that could take days to enact. And it is unclear if self-quarantine due to doctor's orders would be considered a valid reason that a member cannot be present to vote.   

Members of the Senate are also engaged in a separate discussion on adopting mobile voting.

The discussion of remote voting picked up steam this week after two House members and Senator Rand Paul tested positive for COVID-19. Nearly two dozen other House members, like Cole, had to self-quarantine.  

Democrats Congressman Eric Swalwell and Congresswoman Katie Porter and Republican Congressman Van Taylor sent a letter to their respective leadership on Wednesday calling for remote voting.    

"Remote voting is a key part of maintaining continuity of operations," they wrote.  

Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, tweeted Sunday that remote voting should be "instituted immediately" after Paul was tested positive for coronavirus. Senators Mitt Romney and Mike Lee said they would self-quarantine after contact with Paul. Per a statement from Romney's office, his doctor ordered him to vote remotely.

The discussion also comes during a national crisis when lawmakers are about to pass legislation crucial to avoiding an economic meltdown.  

With a handful of states all but locked down, McGovern concedes that "some members won't be able to make it for some of the votes next week."   

Cole, under self-quarantine, may not make it back this week to cast a vote on the economic package that could cost up to $2 trillion.  

Still, Cole was cautious.  

Among the GOP conference, "there are some people that think it makes a lot of sense," Cole said. He noted that he "prefers" voting to be done "on the floor in a transparent way where the American people and the media can watch while it is happening and look up at the board and see what individual members are doing."  

Cole said that ultimately "it's a leadership discussion and we haven't decided yet."  

McGovern and Cole pointed out that the House can pass bills on "voice vote" or by "unanimous consent" so that the entire body is not required to be present in the chamber.  

But, doing business that way can be tricky because if even one member objects then the House must vote in person.  

Another concern related to remote voting: court challenges on any legislation passed by remote voting.  

"If you tried to do it, I think you run the risk of a legal challenge to anything we passed that way," Cole said.  

Even Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida, and one of the members who tested positive for coronavirus, advised moving slowly.  

"There are some constitutional questions that have to be answered. The last thing we need to happen is we go through this very important package and all of a sudden there's some sort of legal challenge," Diaz-Balart said Saturday on NBC News.    

In the meantime, the leaders of the Committee on House Administration - which oversees House operations - are discussing plans to allow for social distance and ensure hygienic practices when members do cast votes.  

Cole explained that Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California, chairwoman of House Administration, and Congressman Rodney Davis of Illinois, the ranking member of the Committee, are discussing ways to make voting on the floor safer for the members.  

Ideas including "assigning members to specific voting machines, staggering vote times and elongating voting times" are all under discussion as possible solutions to allow members to "come back and vote safely," Cole said. 

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