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New resolution would allow Senate to vote remotely during national crisis

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced a resolution on Thursday morning that would allow senators to vote and work remotely during the coronavirus outbreak — or other times of crisis.

“It’s during times like this, when we have a pandemic affecting every corner of society and we are asking people to stay in their homes, that we should have the ability to convene the Senate and get our work done even if we can’t be in the Capitol,” said Portman in a statement.

If the Senate approved the resolution, the Majority and Minority Leaders would have joint authority to allow remote voting when CDC guidelines advise against convening the full Senate in the Capitol. Remote voting would be allowed for 30 days. The Senate would have to vote to renew remote voting every 30 days.

“We live in an age where national emergencies, public health crises and terrorism can threaten the ordinary course of Senate business. We need to bring voting in the Senate into the 21st century so that our important work can continue even under extraordinary circumstances. Bob Dylan was right: ‘the times they are a-changin’,” said Durbin in a statement.

Earlier this week, Durbin, the second-highest-ranking Democratic senator, said the Senate should look into the possibility of remote voting amid the coronavirus outbreak. At the time, Durbin said some senators were exploring the option of changing Senate rules to allow them to vote while not physically present in the Senate chamber.

“Let’s find a way to do this, which protects the integrity of our voting procedure but acknowledges the reality that our physical presence on the floor may not be required,” said Durbin.

Durbin said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee, and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) are looking into the possibility.

“The Senate must do its job to protect the American people from the health and economic impacts of this pandemic. That means we need updated emergency plans including remote Senate voting to ensure that we can pass legislation during any crisis,” said Klobuchar in a statement to Yahoo Finance. “I commend Senators Durbin and Portman for their work on this proposal, and I will continue working with them to pass their bill to ensure our continuity plans address the reality of new threats.”

The CDC is warning against gatherings of more than 10 people and urging older people to stay home. The average age of the 100 members in the U.S. Senate is 63, according to the Congressional Research Service. The U.S. Capitol complex is shut down to the public and many congressional staffers are working from home.

“Let us do it in the context that we are preaching to America,” Durbin said. “As we hold the press conferences in Washington and tell Americans, avoid going to work physically if you can, let us try to find ways to make the Senate work without putting anyone's health at risk. We can do that. But we need to do that together.”

Durbin floated the idea of holding committee hearings on Skype or via teleconference, instead of meeting in person.

“Let’s try to abide by the same guidelines we’re preaching to the rest of America. Let’s use new technology, let’s use our our best thinking and come up with bipartisan answer. That, to me, is the way to manage the Senate in the midst of this national emergency,” said Durbin.

On Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), the Rules Committee Chairman and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told reporters there was no interest in changing the rules among leadership.

“While I know there is resistance to changing a Senate tradition to allow for remote voting during national emergencies, I believe this is an important issue and worthy of robust discussion amongst our Senate colleague,” said Portman.

This story was updated on March 19 with new information about the senators’ resolution.

Jessica Smith is a reporter for Yahoo Finance based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaASmith8.

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