Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday accused House Democrats of “playing games with the Constitution” with their newly passed rules change that will allow members to vote remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, a move the majority leader described as a “precedent-breaking remote voting scheme.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended the rules change in the wake of the criticism, saying in a statement that “remote voting by proxy is fully consistent with the Constitution” and that McConnell’s comments “are deliberately misleading.”
McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said that Democrats “jammed through” the rules change, which he said will let “one member cast 10 additional votes, actually one person, 11 votes.” He went on to say, “There are several problems with this, one of them happens to be Article 1, Section 5 of the US Constitution, which says a majority of each house shall constitute a quorum to do business.”
The majority leader argued “there will be enormous constitutional questions around anything the House does if they fail to demonstrate a real quorum, but plow ahead anyhow” since the Constitution, he said, “requires a physical quorum.”
Pelosi pushed back on Thursday, saying, “Remote voting by proxy is fully consistent with the Constitution and more than a century of legal precedent, including Supreme Court cases, that make clear that the House can determine its own rules. As legal scholars have concluded, the ‘Constitution bestows on each House of Congress broad discretion to determine the rules for its own proceedings … This authority is expansive and would include the ability to adopt a rule to permit proxy voting.’”
“Leader McConnell’s comments are deliberately misleading, as proxy voting has long been used by Senate committees,” the California Democrat said. “Simply and sadly, he is trying to find every excuse not to meet the needs of the American people.”
McConnell also took aim at the remote voting rule during a private call with House Republicans on Wednesday, a source familiar told CNN. The source said that McConnell quipped that only a Democrat would try to solve a pandemic by giving one person 10 votes.
The House of Representatives on Friday passed the rules change to allow lawmakers to vote remotely during the coronavirus pandemic along with a sweeping bill to spend more than $3 trillion for Covid-19 relief.
Democratic leaders have said that remote voting by proxy will ensure lawmakers can continue to legislate safely and effectively during the pandemic, while Republicans had criticized the rules change proposal to allow remote voting and remote committee work as a partisan power grab that will upend institutional tradition.
Pelosi said at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday that the remote voting plan “has been very well planned” and “thought out” in response to a question from a reporter asking how confident she is that proxy voting will work in the House next week and how many members she expects to take advantage of the system.
The rules change will authorize temporary implementation of remote voting by proxy in the event of a public health emergency due to the coronavirus. It also allows for remote committee proceedings during the pandemic.
Under the rules change, lawmakers who cannot or do not want to travel during the pandemic will be allowed to designate proxies by sending letters to the House clerk. Proxies will be required to “receive exact written instruction” from the members who are using them as proxies, according to the House Rules Committee.
Any given member can serve as a proxy for up to 10 other lawmakers. Once enacted, the authorization for remote voting and remote committee work will remain in place for a 45-day period, after which it could be extended if the public health emergency persists.
This isn’t the first time Republican lawmakers have raised constitutional questions over the rules change.
After it was approved by the House last week, GOP Whip Steve Scalise said, “if a major piece of legislation were to come to this floor and to pass with a proxy – meaning 20 people holding proxies clearly under your bill, would be what your side would claim would be a majority – it would be challenged, definitely would be eligible for being challenged in court under the Article 1 Section five constitutional requirement of a quorum.”
In response, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said, “We expect a good turnout of members on both sides of the aisle to be in the chamber when we meet. We do know, however, there are members who for health reasons – either their own health or the health of one of their family members – transportation issues, as you know, they are more difficult now with the pandemic going on. But our expectation is there will be a good number of members. We do not expect there to be 20 members here. We expect there to be many more.”
Hoyer added, “When asked to come to the House to pass critically important legislation, members on both sides of the aisle have been here in large numbers.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.