WASHINGTON — It’s a day that's shaping up as one for the history books: For the first time, House lawmakers intend to vote by proxy, a move to avoid the risk of travel to Washington during the pandemic.
To mark Wednesday's history-making moment, House Republicans sued to stop the majority party from going ahead.
The House, with 432 current members and three vacancies, is trying to strike a balance between working from home during the coronavirus outbreak and honoring the Constitution’s requirement to be “present” and voting.
The House rules change is fast becoming a political test on party lines. Dozens of Democrats signed up to have colleagues cast their vote by proxy. Twenty Republicans joined in the leaders’ lawsuit against that move, which House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California says is unconstitutional.
“It's a dereliction of duty,” McCarthy said.
The House returned to Washington for an abbreviated two-day session as the city remains under stay home orders through month's end. Republicans in the Senate, which is on recess after spending much of May in the capital, have knocked the decision by top Democrats to largely stay out of session during the pandemic.
Deadlocked over the next big coronavirus relief bill, Congress is shifting its attention to a more modest overhaul of small-business aid in hopes of helping employers reopen shops and survive the pandemic.
But the agenda is in flux, with the main item, extending federal surveillance tools, in doubt after the Justice Department urged President Donald Trump to veto it. Republicans, wary of crossing the president, asked to delay the vote.
There were no formal talks between congressional leaders on the next phase of the federal coronavirus response. Democrats have pushed a $3 trillion-plus measure through the House, but negotiations with the GOP-controlled Senate and White House have yet to begin.
“We can’t keep propping up the economy forever,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday in Lexington, Kentucky. It was one of his first public appearances in his home state since mid-March because of the pandemic.
“The ultimate solution is to begin to get back to normal,” he said.
Senate Republicans are divided on the next steps and are wary of another round of negotiations where Democrats and the White House call the shots. They are also split on how much aid to provide state and local governments and other parts of the response after earlier measures totaled almost $3 trillion.
Even as they hit “pause” on a larger bill, Republicans are enthusiastic about improving the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established in March under the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill and was replenished last month. All told, Congress has provided about $660 billion for the program.
The bipartisan legislation that would give small employers more time to take advantage of federal subsidies for payroll and other costs. It was expected to pass the House this week.
The new proxy vote system was pushed so the House could work from home, as many other Americans are doing. Approved by House Democrats earlier this month, it allows a lawmaker to formally ask a colleague to vote on his or her behalf. A single lawmaker can carry 10 votes.
So far more than 70 Democrats — many from California and other Western states — submitted formal proxy requests to the House Clerk for this week's votes.
Republicans want to set an example by returning to work as Trump encourages businesses to reopen. In filing the suit Tuesday, the GOP lawmakers said the new system threatens the legitimacy of House-passed bills, calling into question whether they will stand the constitutional test.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the suit was a “sad stunt” as the nation’s virus-related death toll approaches 100,000.
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, expects the suit to be dismissed. He said the Constitution allows the House to make its own rules, and federal courts generally don't get involved with the internal governance of another branch of government.
“Most of all,” he wrote by email, the suit “ignores the extraordinary circumstances and the reasons why this is needed to allow the House to do its business and still be safe for members and staff.”
It appears the House, with four times as many members as the 100-person Senate, could be out of session for much of June as well.
The small business bill would provide a 24-week window to spend PPP funds and would eliminate a requirement that 75% of the forgivable loans be used for payroll costs. The goal is to give businesses more flexibility to pay rent and other overhead costs such as installing protective equipment.
The Senate tried last week to extend the program but ran into resistance. Under the original program, businesses are required to spend their loan money within the eight-week window to have their loans forgiven. Without forgiveness, they would face a debt burden that, for many, would be hard to bear in a struggling economy.