Opinion | The Senate Needs Absentee Voting, Too
The Senate Democratic caucus was hit with a pair of unsettling health developments this week.
Late Tuesday afternoon, a spokesman for Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont announced that Mr. Leahy had been taken to a Washington hospital for observation after feeling unwell. This was done at the recommendation of the Capitol’s attending physician, “out of an abundance of caution.”
After a few hours, Mr. Leahy had been evaluated and was released. He “looks forward to getting back to work,” his spokesman reassured the public. Mr. Leahy, who is 80, later attributed the episode to muscle spasms and said he had been given “a clean bill of health.”
On Wednesday evening, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia announced that he was quarantining after possible exposure to the coronavirus. The senator had tested negative but would “be working remotely during his quarantine period,” his spokeswoman said, “out of an abundance of caution.”
With caution at the forefront of senators’ minds, the chamber’s new leadership should get serious about enabling members to vote remotely in the event of health emergencies.
Since the early days of the pandemic, there has been much debate about how to ensure that Congress can do its job, most notably when it comes to voting, in the event that the coronavirus makes it impossible for lawmakers to gather safely. Over the past year, members from both chambers and from both parties have expressed growing support for remote voting. Multiple bills have been introduced on the issue.
For a variety of reasons, neither the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, nor Mitch McConnell, then the Senate majority leader, were initially keen on the idea. Many people, on and off Capitol Hill, have concerns about any measures that could erode lawmakers’ duty to meet face to face to deliberate and negotiate — which is a key reason that pre-pandemic proposals to move toward online voting have met resistance.
But extenuating circumstances call for extenuating measures. In May, the House acknowledged the realities of the pandemic and made provisions for proxy voting. Mr. McConnell, by contrast, continued to insist that his chamber could navigate the crisis without such disruptive changes.
The current majority leader, Chuck Schumer, should take a more pragmatic approach. If anything, the Senate’s new 50-50 split, which makes every member’s vote that much more critical, makes the need for a fallback plan for voting that much greater. Concerns about the effects on tradition and deliberation can be ameliorated by making any plan explicitly temporary and contingent on specific conditions being met. Mr. Schumer’s office acknowledged that this is “a serious issue” and told the editorial board that it is “looking into it.”
Already, the announcement of Mr. Warner’s quarantine has prompted speculation about whether his absence could delay Democrats’ attempts to move ahead with a coronavirus relief package using the process of reconciliation, which allows for budget-related measures to pass with a simple majority.
This will not be the last time this kind of question arises. Neither is the coronavirus crisis likely to be the last time that the health and safety of members raise grave concerns about their ability to gather safely. Congress must be able to get the people’s work done even when it cannot meet in person. It is time for the Senate to ensure that can happen.
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