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House Democrats back off plan to allow proxy voting during pandemic

GOP lawmakers push to reopen Congress
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Washington — House Democrats will postpone a planned vote on a proposed rule change that would allow members to vote by proxy, with party leaders backing away from a resolution to let other members vote on behalf of colleagues shortly after it was unveiled. The proposal was offered by Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, but has faced some opposition from Republicans.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on a conference call with Democratic members on Wednesday that a vote on the resolution planned for Thursday won't move forward, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers would instead be tasked with evaluating remote proxy voting and other issues, according to a person on the call. A vote on the Senate-passed $484 billion rescue package will go on as planned, Pelosi said.

McGovern later announced in a statement on Wednesday that the Rules Committee would instead meet to vote on a measure creating the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, "a bipartisan effort examining ways Congress could better adapt to emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic."

 "I have always said that I prefer changes to House procedure to be done in a bipartisan and collaborative way. I'm grateful that the discussions that have taken place over the past few weeks have now led to this bipartisan effort. I'm hopeful that this formal working group can come to an agreement on changes that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on," McGovern said.

The rule change would have allowed proxy voting "during a designated pandemic emergency." The coronavirus pandemic has raised concerns about having lawmakers gather in one place to vote, particularly since many members of Congress are above the age of 60 and therefore more vulnerable to serious illness caused by the virus.

According to the legislative text of the resolution unveiled by McGovern earlier in the day, members who are choosing to stay in their districts would be required to submit letters to the clerk of the House designating colleague as their proxies. Members would have to provide exact instructions for how their proxies should vote on their behalf, and the proxies would carry out those orders accordingly.

"Any member whose vote is cast or whose presence is recorded by a designated proxy under this resolution shall be counted for the purpose of establishing a quorum under the rules of the House," the text said.

Some House Republicans had expressed frustration with Pelosi and the passage of massive pieces of legislation without a full House vote. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy sent Pelosi a letter Tuesday requesting a plan for reopening the House moving forward.

"In my view, conducting the business of the People's House is the definition of 'essential work' — just as many of our friends and neighbors continue working to hold up our communities on a daily basis," the California Republican wrote. The House is not expected to formally return until May 4. 

Republican Congressman Jim Jordan told reporters on Tuesday that he believed proxy voting is a "terrible idea" and "flat out wrong."

"It's supposed to be in-person, in a debate, because we're a representative democracy, meaning someone [is] representing the constituents back home and fighting for the positions and issues that you told them you're going to fight for," Jordan said, although he conceded that Democrats have the majority and could enact the rule change without GOP support.

McGovern's resolution came after House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer sent a letter to him and Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren on Tuesday urging them to consider a rule change to allow for remote voting and committee work.

"Enabling the House to work remotely, when necessitated by an emergency situation as determined by the Speaker in consultation with the Minority Leader, will make it clear to those we serve that their representatives are doing their part in this crisis," Hoyer said in his letter.

Hoyer wrote that proxy voting is a "first step," and said the House "must show the American people that we continue to work hard on their behalf — because we already are."

The text of the rule change proposed by McGovern would have allowed the Administration and Rules Committees, in concert with the House clerk, to "study the feasibility of using technology to facilitate the remote participation of Members in the House of Representatives who are unable to physically attend the proceedings of the House of Representatives due to extraordinary circumstances such as a pandemic emergency."

Melissa Quinn and Alan He contributed to this report.

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