U.S. House sets Friday vote on lawmaking by proxy during pandemic


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday will vote on a measure temporarily allowing members to vote from outside the Capitol so they can work while keeping social distance during the coronavirus pandemic, the chamber’s Democratic leadership said.

Congress has argued for weeks over whether and how to allow members to cast ballots from outside Washington to reduce the risks of traveling and gathering during a public health crisis that has killed more than 82,000 Americans and caused economic turmoil.

The Supreme Court has already adapted, breaking with precedent to begin hearing arguments on high-profile cases by telephone. Meanwhile, the House has not met in regular session since March, although large numbers of House lawmakers have gathered in the Capitol twice to vote on coronavirus relief bills.

In April the House postponed a vote to set up remote proxy voting and virtual committee work after Republicans protested. Instead a bipartisan panel was set up to study the matter.

The committee failed to agree, and Democrats, who have the majority in the House, have decided to push ahead anyway, saying they accommodated some Republican concerns.

“Further delay is not an option,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and other leaders said in a statement Wednesday. Republicans denounced the planned voting changes as a “power grab”.

The resolution would allow members to vote from outside the Capitol by asking another member to vote for them. Committees could do their work virtually, but the online platforms they use must be approved by the House’s chief administrative officer.

Republicans said the changes being debated on Friday ran counter to precedent and the U.S. Constitution.

“Any change to centuries-old rules of the House should only be done in a bipartisan way that achieves consensus,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement. “This proposal fails that critical test and would forever alter our democratic institution for the worse.”The Senate, which with 100 members is less than a fourth the size of the House, returned to session last week and has been practicing social distancing measures during votes. It has also held partly virtual hearings in which witnesses and some members appear remotely, such as Tuesday’s appearance by Dr. Anthony Fauci and other health care experts before the chamber’s health committee.

Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Scott Malone and David Gregorio