House Democrats push proxy voting over Republican pushback
"I think you'll see pretty close to universal Republican opposition," said Rep. Tom Cole.
Democrats are pushing ahead with historic changes to House rules despite vocal GOP opposition, setting the stage for a potential showdown on the floor when lawmakers return Thursday.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her deputies are drafting a temporary overhaul of the chamber’s rules that would permit lawmakers to cast votes by proxy for their colleagues, allowing them to go on record without leaving home during the coronavirus outbreak.
The change, according to top Democrats, would allow the House to return to some semblance of normalcy, after scrapping roll call votes for five weeks to limit the risk involved with calling all 430 members back to Washington. The plan is expected to come to the floor Thursday, the same day lawmakers approve the latest $484 billion coronavirus relief bill.
“This virus has forced us to do things in different ways — to be radically different in many respects for the safety and security of all in our country,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who formally endorsed a system of remote voting on Tuesday, told reporters afterward.
But the lack of GOP support is threatening an ugly partisan clash when the House meets Thursday to pass yet another round of legislation confronting the nation’s dual health and economic crises.
"I think you'll see pretty close to universal Republican opposition," said Rep. Tom Cole, the top Republican on the House Rules panel, who has called on lawmakers to return to Washington.
"It was probably more dangerous to get here during the Civil War," the Oklahoma Republican added. "Congress looks pretty wimpy here, in my view."
Tensions between the two parties were already running high, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy accusing Pelosi of holding up small-business aid during negotiations over the latest round of relief — a move he said has soured any good will that had existed during the national crisis. “I think there was a moment in time when [proxy voting] could have been [voice voted], but I think the Democrats have really messed that up,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a recent interview.
House Democrats would likely have the votes to implement the changes on their own this week. But they would have to contend with making a dramatic procedural shift for the 200-year-old institution without buy-in from the minority.
“Democrats got the majority, so if they want to do it, they can do it. It’s not like you need Senator [Mitch] McConnell to sign off on how the House conducts business,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told reporters in the Capitol, adding that he thinks it's a "terrible idea."
Many Democrats, and some Republicans, say a system of proxy-voting would allow Congress to function far more robustly than it has during this crisis. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a supporter of remote voting, sought to add language to a Senate bill on Tuesday that would allow remote voting "if necessary." McConnell rejected it on the floor.
The House proposal is a more low-tech version of electronic voting that some members have supported. It would allow lawmakers who are unable to come into the Capitol to still go on record for the massive relief bills — the biggest of their congressional careers — by being paired with a member in the Capitol who casts their vote.
"Whatever we would do on proxy voting, at this time, would be strictly related to the coronavirus," Pelosi said of the proxy voting push. "It’s not just about us. It’s about the staff, it’s about the press, it’s about the security, it’s about those who run the buildings."
But without the backing of GOP leaders, that change in House rules could also lead to chaos. Some are already anticipating a scenario in which nearly half of the House openly defies the new rules and hammers Democrats for refusing to summon their full caucus back to Washington.
Democrats plan to approve the change through the House Rules Committee on Wednesday night, though it’s unlikely to garner much, if any, bipartisan support. Jordan said he traveled back to D.C. early so he could voice his opposition to the idea during the meeting.
And McCarthy said in a letter to Pelosi on Tuesday that he was aware of “reports” of the plans for proxy voting and wanted more details about how it would work — including how it would “avoid abuses of power.”
Democrats, though, say McCarthy has already been part of initial discussions on the idea and has remained open to it; Hoyer and McCarthy have been in contact about the issue.
In a recent interview with POLITICO, McCarthy said Republicans are “willing to look at ways to improve” the House’s system of voting during the pandemic, though he said he didn’t think it should be voice voted on the floor without the input of all members.
“You don’t change 200 years of history and say, ‘I’m going to go do something.’ You have to study it. It has to be bipartisan,” McCarthy said.
The push to create a proxy voting system in the House comes as a growing number of lawmakers on both sides have fiercely criticized Congress for being seen as missing from their posts — even as lawmakers work furiously from their districts to assist struggling businesses, health facilities and local governments. Some Democrats also fear they're not doing enough publicly to be a counterpoint to President Donald Trump, who holds daily press news on the coronavirus that often run over two hours.
McCarthy, too, used his letter to increase the pressure on Pelosi and other top Democrats to reopen the House before they’re scheduled to return on May 4, complaining that lawmakers were still awaiting guidance on when the chamber’s usual duties, like hearings and debate, would resume.
Around a half-dozen frustrated House Republicans even attempted to stage a miniprotest Tuesday by returning to Washington early in defiance of Democratic leadership’s decision to extend the recess. Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.) tried to seek recognition on the House floor during the pro forma session, during which he planned to ask about how and when the House will return to normal. But his effort was rejected before the procedural move could begin.
Several of those GOP members who came back to D.C., including Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), said they oppose any kind of proxy voting. They worry it would limit lawmakers' involvement in the legislative process and warn that it is not a sufficient replacement for being physically present in the Capitol.
“We should be here in person to vote,” Harris, who wore a plastic face shield in the Capitol, told reporters. “That's the way it’s been done for 200 years, that's the way we should do it now.”
Some Republicans, like Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Elise Stefanik of New York, have been vocal in calling for remote voting — at least on a temporary basis. But even some GOP lawmakers who support the idea say Democrats are attempting to make the historic changes unilaterally instead of working with Republicans.
And others say the proxy voting plan falls short of allowing lawmakers to use technology to vote remotely.
“Speaker Pelosi’s ‘proxy’ voting is a total punt on this critical issue to ensure Congress is able to remotely legislate,” Stefanik tweeted. “She needs to enter the 21st century & use basic tech tools to ensure every Member can vote yea/nay and also help shape legislation while in home districts.”
Some Republicans have also cautioned that remote voting of any kind would raise constitutional questions. Multiple constitutional experts consulted by the House, however, assured Democrats that such a change is likely within their power.
"I think the Constitution is clear that each house gets to make the rules for its proceedings," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional expert from the University of California Berkeley School of Law who recently spoke with House Democrats.
"This authority is expansive and would include the ability to adopt a rule to permit proxy voting. Nothing in the Constitution specifies otherwise." Chemerinsky said.
Democrats, meanwhile, have acknowledged the difficulty in reshaping institutional procedure but have stressed it would solely be on a temporary basis during the coronavirus crisis.
“It won't be a permanent fix. It will be just for a few weeks to get us through the pandemic. Once that is over, then we can return to regular order,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday.
“If the Republican conference instructs members to not vote for it that would be very disappointing. But it will take 216 votes ... and we'll have 216 Democrats here ready to vote for it,” Butterfield said.
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.