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U.S. House embroiled in dispute on how to conduct government business in a pandemic


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 practising physical distancing 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 travelling 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 of Maryland and other Democrats 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.

House contains multitudes

Republicans said the changes being debated on Friday run 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,” top House Republican Kevin McCarthy of California said in a statement. “This proposal fails that critical test and would forever alter our democratic institution for the worse.”

In this file photo from Jan. 3, 2019, the House of Representatives chamber is seen on the first day of the 116th Congress. The House contains 435 voting members, more than a third of whom are seniors and at heightened risk if they contract COVID-19, according to health experts. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

The Senate, with 100 members, returned to session last week and has been practising physical 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.

While many senators attending in person wore masks, such as Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia, it wasn’t a unanimous practice.

A small number of congressional members have contracted the virus so far, with concerns also in the White House after Vice-President Mike Pence’s press secretary and a valet who has been in the Oval Office tested positive for the coronavirus last week.

The House is more than four times larger than the Senate in terms of the number of members. The average age in the House is 58, but more than 150 members were born in 1955 or earlier, with 13 members celebrating a birthday above 80 years old this year.

Those over the age of 65 are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, the respiratory ailment caused by the novel coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control.





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