A handful of staffers have also contracted the virus, and many more are scared to set foot at the Capitol, where even in a good year, illnesses are known to spread and linger. That’s not to mention the average age of lawmakers — in their sixties — puts them at higher risk than the population at large.
And yet both houses of Congress will have to assemble — in person — to pass the $1 trillion pandemic aid package the U.S. Senate has been hammering out over the past week. There is no plan B. So while 75 million Americans have been ordered to stay inside to stop the spread of the coronavirus, members of Congress, including 148 members of the House and 48 Senators over the age of 65, will be putting themselves and others at risk to take this vote.
“We are putting at risk our democracy,” Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) told VICE News in a phone interview. “Congress should have to set up a plan for continuity of operations. We lose our credibility when we ask others to do things that we are not willing to do ourselves.”
Throughout the week, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) — the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat — has been railing against leadership for keeping the Senate in session over the advice of public health officials, who have called for no more than 10 people to congregate at a time. He introduced a plan with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to temporarily allow remote voting.
“We have critically important work to do in the Senate, but gathering in groups, as we’ve done historically, poses a health risk, not just to us as members and our families, but to the staff, as well as their families,” Durbin said. “Why is it required that we be physically present on the floor, closer to one another than perhaps we should be at this moment of a public health crisis?”
Leadership has so far swatted away the idea.
“We will deal with the social distancing issue without fundamentally changing the Senate rules.”
“We’ll not be doing that. Look, there are a number of different ways to avoid getting too many people together,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters at the Capitol Tuesday. “We will deal with the social distancing issue without fundamentally changing the Senate rules.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also shot down the idea in the House last week, though since then, she has asked a few committees to explore ideas and take input from members. Most House members are already back in their home districts, so they will have hop in planes, trains and cars to get back to D.C. and vote on the giant stimulus package the Senate is negotiating.
There is one mechanism Congress can use to vote from afar. It’s called unanimous consent, but that means even a single member can object and force an in-person vote. Avoiding that would require an unprecedented level of agreement, an unlikely outcome when the product is the costliest emergency stimulus bill Congress has ever tried to put together.