Despite congressional leaders’ position that Congress does not need to consider remote voting in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the diagnosis of Sen. Rand Paul with COVID-19 has kept the topic alive at the highest levels — including at the White House.
President Donald Trump on Sunday endorsed the idea of Congress setting up remote voting procedures “on a temporary basis” after Paul, a Kentucky Republican, tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
“I would certainly be in favor of it, where they could remote from some outside location,” the president said when asked about the idea during the daily coronavirus news conference.
“I was thinking about it today,” Trump said. “You could have a lot of senators and a lot of House members. … You could have a large number” who have COVID-19.
Despite that sentiment, however, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his team have brushed off the idea. On Sunday, as the Senate struggled to coalesce around a third stimulus package to deal with the fallout from the pandemic, McConnell referred to his home-state colleague, as well as the four other Republican senators in self-quarantine.
“We’re not immune to it in terms of the public health risk. The coronavirus has hit the Senate today as well. We have five members, five members in self-quarantine. Everybody understands the emergency, particularly when it hits close to home. It’s not just back in our states, but right here in the Senate,” he said.
Senators defied a standing request from McConnell to enter and exit votes quickly and to not linger. Last week he made a specific plea for his colleagues to give a wide berth to the clerk staff and other Senate staffers required for the chamber to be in session.
But on Sunday, the same day one of their own tested positive for COVID-19, senators huddled together to talk and gathered in the well of the chamber.
The doors to the chamber were propped open so senators did not have to push them. Many rubbed hand sanitizer on their hands as they entered the chamber to vote.
Trump said there may be constitutional reasons why Congress has to convene in the Capitol, but he would support remote voting during the coronavirus pandemic if it’s feasible.
He mentioned Paul’s diagnosis at the news conference Sunday, along with that of Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, whom he misidentified as José, saying the coronavirus is “getting quite close to home.”
“I hope they’re all going to be fine, but I just want to send our regards … to those two great friends of mine,” he said.
He said he talked to Diaz-Balart on Saturday.
Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt told reporters Sunday that Paul’s diagnosis would not trigger immediate changes in the Senate but that he’s awaiting more information.
“Individual members will know whether they’ve had much contact with him in the last week or not. And I don’t believe it changes our posture,” Blunt said.
When asked if senators should get out of town to avoid spreading the virus among themselves, he noted the wide recommendations that people not travel unnecessarily.
“I wouldn’t think so. And if we do get out of here, how would we get out of here?” the Missouri Republican said.
Still, several senators are pushing for remote voting. Ohio Republican Rob Portman and Illinois Democrat Richard J. Durbin, who collaborated on a resolution to pursue remote voting, took to the floor Sunday evening to discuss the topic after the Senate failed to advance the stimulus package.
Durbin called for establishing “a verifiable technology and procedure so members do not have to be physically present.”
“Five of our Senate colleagues were unable to come to the floor of the Senate and vote because they’re in self-quarantine at this moment,” he said. “The numbers could grow to the point it could reach an extreme where there’s a question of an actual quorum on the floor of the Senate.”
Portman and Durbin’s 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.
“It affects both sides of the aisle,” Portman said. “We’re all vulnerable. If we can find a practical solution which respects the integrity of the voting process of the United States Senate, let’s do it.”