After weeks of negotiations, Congress approved its $2 trillion coronavirus relief package on Friday. But that measure’s final approval was threatened by the same virus that made it necessary.
Over the past few weeks, more than 30 lawmakers have been exposed to the novel coronavirus or showed some degree of symptoms that have led them to self-quarantine. But so far, only three have tested positive for the virus, including Reps. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL) and Ben McAdams (D-UT) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).
Paul announced that he tested positive for the novel coronavirus on Sunday as senators continued to negotiate provisions in their relief package on Capitol Hill. Both Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) were advised to self-quarantine for 14 days by the Capitol’s attending physician after they had interacted with Paul. Other members like Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Rick Scott (R-FL) have also gone home after potential exposure to the virus.
The COVID-19 pandemic has renewed calls from some lawmakers for congressional leadership to allow remote voting. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Constitution does require a majority of members to establish a quorum to vote, but it’s the House and Senate’s own rules that require lawmakers to be physically present to cast their votes. So far, congressional leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) have opposed total remote voting. The Senate already allows members to vote on behalf of others in committee, known as proxy voting, and Pelosi has entertained changes to the rules that may allow proxy votes on the House floor in the future. But none of those rules were in effect when the House voted on Friday’s relief package.
Still, many lawmakers stayed home to protect themselves from infection as congressional leaders nailed down the specifics of the deal on which the House planned to vote on Friday morning. House leaders sought to pass the measure by voice vote, a seldom-used procedure that doesn’t require the entire chamber to be present for passage.
Those plans changed after Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) told a local radio station on Thursday that he planned to object that vote and request a recorded tally, meaning 216 members need to be present, threatening to delay an already-delayed stimulus package.
“We have notified our Members of the possibility that the bill may not pass by voice vote,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-MD) press office wrote in a statement on Thursday. “The Majority Leader’s Office has sent a notice to Members that if they are able and willing to be in Washington, DC by 10:00 a.m. tomorrow, they are encouraged to do so, while exercising all due caution.”
By Friday morning, enough House lawmakers had raced back to Washington by car and plane to override Massie’s objections.
Earlier this week, the House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Congress’ attending physician, Brian Monahan, issued guidance advising lawmakers to stay in their offices until the vote was called and required them to use hand sanitizer as they entered and left the chamber. According to The Washington Post, the galleries that hang above the House floor were opened up so more members could filter in while maintaining the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance of six feet of distance between one another.
Still, not every lawmaker was able to make remarks on the House floor on Friday either lauding or critiquing provisions in the titanic relief package. The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Hoyer’s office told lawmakers outside of DC that they could record their own video statements that would be aired on C-SPAN during primetime hours next week. They will also be shared on social media.
The pandemic has upturned political life. Aside from threatening congressional business, presidential candidates like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump have all started to host rallies and campaign events online. No one knows exactly how long the pandemic will last, but it could force lawmakers to reimagine political business entirely as much of it moves online.