SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s representation in Congress will be severely curtailed for at least the next two weeks, especially when it comes to voting on critical economic relief legislation for workers and businesses.
Half of the state’s congressional delegation is under quarantine — including both senators — because of the coronavirus. Rep. Ben McAdams, the state’s only Democrat in Congress, is in a Utah hospital with COVID-19.
All three are sidelined for any upcoming votes.
Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, both Republicans, put themselves in self-isolation on Sunday because of contact with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who was diagnosed with COVID-19. They flew home to Utah together on a charter flight Sunday night with what Romney said was sufficient protective equipment to cover the pilot and co-pilot.
“We are both home and we’re going to be staying away from anybody,” Romney told KSL Newsradio’s “Dave and Dujanovic” on Monday.
For Romney, that includes his wife, Ann, whose multiple sclerosis compromises her immune system. He said he’s staying in his house alone, while his wife stays with one of their sons or elsewhere.
Romney told the Deseret News that he received a COVID-19 test on Monday. He said he qualifies because he sat near Paul for two hours at a lunch meeting last Friday and then spoke to him in person the next day and because of his age.
He said he was told results could take 24 to 72 hours because the testing instruments had to be recalibrated due to last Wednesday’s earthquake.
Romney said he doesn’t think Utah’s representation in Washington will suffer because senators, including Lee, were already conducting business by text message, phone and video conferencing.
But being home means neither of the state’s senators will be able to vote on the more than $1.5 trillion economic rescue package Republicans and Democrats spent Monday fighting about. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed for a vote on the bill Monday. Senate rules require in-person voting.
Romney said he raised the idea of remote voting in the Senate two weeks ago but was shut down.
“Sen. McConnell said no way, we’re not going to ever talk about that. But now I think he might be thinking perhaps that he’d like to consider a different alternative,” he said.
Lee also favors remote voting, said Lee spokesman Conn Carroll.
“In the meantime, he is busy with phone calls and texts with his Senate colleagues in Washington making sure Utahns have a strong voice in the federal coronavirus response package,” he said.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, proposed a resolution to amend Senate rules to allow senators to vote remotely during a national crisis, such as the current pandemic. The idea is getting mixed reviews in Congress, with some raising constitutional questions.
Romney is resigned to the fact that he and Lee will not be able to vote on a stimulus package.
Romney said he told McConnell he would charter a medical airplane and fly to Washington if his vote is necessary. He said he would take Lee with him “kicking and screaming” as well. The two senators were on opposite sides of the earlier relief bill, but Romney said he believes they’re on the same page with the current legislation.
While the Senate is working through the rescue package, the House is not in session.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said remote voting could be as simple as a secure text.
“I think it’s just nuts for us not to set up some type of process where we can vote electronically. It shouldn’t be that hard. For heaven sakes, look at the technical capabilities we have,” he told the “Dave and Dujanovic” show.
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said Congress has never had this situation before and it’s new ground for everyone.
“I don’t mind telling you, my wife is going crazy. She does not want me to hop on a plane and fly across the country,” he told the program. “She wants to know, like most of America, why there’s nothing in place to vote remotely.”
Curtis said his best answer is that the culture is very dependent on members of Congress being together, and there’s a huge reluctance to let go of that.
“There’s something very powerful with us being together, with being able to look in each others’ eyes, to be able to have these conversations that we lose if we’re scattered across the country,” he said.
Both Curtis and Stewart said it’s possible that House members might have to drive rather than fly to Washington, which could drag out voting on the rescue package.
There is no explicit constitutional requirement to meet in person, which means the rules adopted by the House and the Senate for what constitutes a quorum are what matter, said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
“Those rules do require meeting in-person, which in normal circumstances is very wise,” he said. “Because each legislative body can determine its own rules, however, they may want to consider loosening attendance requirements in public health emergencies like this one so that everyone, including those who need to self-isolate, can participate.”
But Utahns right now might be thinking more about the health of their representatives.
Karpowitz said he’s sure many are concerned and are sending prayers and best wishes to all three in isolation. The fact that McAdams is hospitalized is especially worrisome, he said.
“Regardless of party affiliation, Utahns will hope for a full and quick recovery,” he said.
That Lee and Romney are self-quarantining even in advance of any symptoms sets a very good example for how residents can also respond to the crisis.
“It’s clear that our efforts at social distancing and self-isolation will have to intensify in the coming days,” he said.
McAdams is in close communication with his Washington and Utah staffs, congressional leaders and Utah stakeholders on the relief measure as he recovers from the virus. He urged an end to the partisan debate that would unnecessarily delay an agreement.
“Partisan proposals will do nothing to contain the spread of this virus or deliver economic security to Utahns. With the lives and livelihoods of Utah’s working families on the line, both parties must do everything possible to work together to reach bipartisan, bicameral agreement on policies going forward,” he said.
McAdams said a state small-business tax credit he has championed is expected to be included in the House legislation.
In all, five GOP senators and about two dozen House members of both parties are in self-quarantine or isolation.
Romney said it likely won’t matter that those Senate Republicans are absent because Democrats are needed to get the relief bill passed. The GOP holds a 53-47 majority in the chamber.
Still, “it would be nice to be there to cast that vote,” he said.
Democrats blocked it from advancing Sunday and again Monday, arguing that Republicans are prioritizing corporate industry over American workers in the legislation.
Romney said he hopes Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. understands this is a time to keep workers on the job and businesses making payroll to avoid tens of millions of people swamping unemployment offices.
“I think it’s highly irresponsible and reckless for the Democrats to be trying to do some corporate social engineering at a time when small business and big business and families need help as soon as possible,” Romney said.
Democrats, he said, are using the crisis to insert a “liberal wish list” or “Bernie Sanders redux” into the bill with minimum wage, pro-union and DACA provisions.
Romney said he was on the phone all day trying to get Democrats “off the dime.”
“This is not the time to be fiddling and diddling with how America works and to try and change the nature of capitalism,” Romney said. “This is a time to get money to small business and big business and families so that we can keep jobs and keep people on their feet.”