Updated at 5:30 p.m. ET
The pressure is on for Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego.
For the first time, he traveled to Washington, D.C. with elaborate instructions to vote on behalf of two of his colleagues. Gallego can do this under historic new rules allowing proxy voting.
So for two days of legislative floor action, Gallego will call his colleagues — Democratic Reps. Nanette Diaz Barragán of California and Filemon Vela of Texas — before every vote, amendment and other key developments.
“I’m just going to make sure that I double check and triple check their phone calls, emails and texts and then I’ll double check with the clerk as I’m voting for them,” Gallego says with a laugh. “I don’t want to mess this up for them, I want to make sure I do it right and try to not at least not embarrass myself.”
One by one, Gallego and other members lined up on the House floor to announce their colleagues’ intentions during the first vote series on Wednesday. It was for approval of a human rights policy bill urging protection of the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in China. The measure was easily approved 413-1.
In all, more than 70 members submitted noticed to the House clerk’s office that a colleague would vote on their behalf. All are Democrats and the issue has become a partisan flashpoint about whether the House should reopen for business as usual as states around the country are taking steps to get people back to work.
Earlier this month, the House approved new rules allowing remote voting and hearings for the first time in the chamber’s history. Now, a member can vote on behalf of up to 10 colleagues who are unable to travel to the Capitol during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some Democrats closer to Washington, D.C., including Reps. Don Beyer of Virginia and Jamie Raskin of Maryland, were in even higher demand with plans to vote on behalf of five of their colleagues or more.
It marks the most significant change to the way the House votes since it allowed electronic voting on the House floor in 1973. The new rules were adopted on May 15 along a straight party line vote.
The change was spurred along by the worsening pandemic, which forced the House to extend its recess in the midst of an outbreak on Capitol Hill and as public health risks were assessed. The chamber has only held a handful of votes related to coronavirus legislation in the last two months.
Texas Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who voted by proxy, defended the practice. Gonzalez seriously injured his back earlier this month when he fell 12 feet while working on his home, and now has to recuperate for several weeks. He designated a member in his state’s delegation, Rep. Henry Cuellar, to vote on his behalf this week.
“In times of crisis, our nation must adapt. It’s past time we modernized Congress’ voting system to allow for remote voting during national emergencies,” Gonzalez said. “Proxy voting allows for Members of Congress to continue working for the people while following the advice of medical professionals to limit the spread of COVID-19. This solution allows me to represent the people of my district and vote on their behalf despite my recent injuries.”
However, Republicans have argued proxy voting bucks the chamber’s 231-year institutional history and sets a dangerous precedent. Late Tuesday, they filed a federal lawsuit to stop the plan on grounds it was unconstitutional.
“That is why I stand with the members behind me and the constituents across this country in upholding the Constitution, exactly what we swore we would do,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., while flanked by Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Steve Scalise of Louisiana and other members, at a morning news conference criticizing Democratic leaders.
McCarthy, Cheney and Scalise are among more than 20 Republican House members and four constituents listed as plaintiffs in the suit against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other officials.
Late Tuesday, Pelosi called the move a “sad stunt.”
Cheney had previously touted the concept of remote voting, but says she’s not on board now because Democrats installed it without bipartisan support.
“There are ways that we can work together, as I said, many of us have been public about wanting to do that,” she said. But “this is not a time for partisanship. It’s not a time to try to take partisan advantage of a crisis.”
The House was slated to consider more than a half dozen bills Wednesday and Thursday, including a measure on reforming a popular small business loan program during the pandemic.
Also on Wednesday, the House Rules Committee held the chamber’s first remote hearing via video conference. It was beset with its own challenges, with muting issues and other technical difficulties as some members gave their presentations.
“There’s really no excuse to not gather in the same room,” an obviously frustrated Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, said during the meeting. “And frankly, it’s the United States Congress, so if we need to rent out a freaking stadium, then we should be able to rent a stadium and operate.”
Under the new rules, committees must hold a virtual practice session, followed by two remote hearings. Once those steps are completed, a panel can hold a markup by video conference as well. For now, committees are directed to use Cisco Webex to connect.
Later Wednesday, Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, led by ranking member Jim Jordan of Ohio, threatened to boycott their future virtual hearings. They documented grievances of “quasi-hearings” by video conference and technical glitches in a letter to the panel’s chair, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.
“Beyond the unprecedented nature of operating the House in this manner, it is unworkable from a day to day perspective,” the letter said.