After two members of the House contract coronavirus, tradition-bound Congress struggles with social distancing

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Leaders in the U.S. House are telling lawmakers to stay away from the Capitol until a massive stimulus package to deal with the coronavirus outbreak is ready for a vote, as members of Congress come face-to-face with the impact of the pandemic.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer notified members Thursday that the chamber won’t resume its session until the Senate is done with its work on a massive economic stimulus measure and that voting procedures will be adjusted to follow recommendations of health officials.

“No decisions have been made on exactly what these changes will be, but we will be discussing all options,” Hoyer wrote in a letter to colleagues.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have so far balked at changing rules to allow voting from outside the Capitol even as the rest of the government is telling employees to work from home and health officials tell the country to avoid gatherings.

But they are confronting increasing pressure from their ranks to let lawmakers vote remotely after two members of the House announced they contracted the coronavirus and others put themselves in self-quarantine.

Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois are introducing legislation Thursday to let the Senate vote from afar during national emergencies. In the House, nearly 50 lawmakers are supporting a remote-voting plan put forth by Democrat Eric Swalwell of California and Republican Rick Crawford of Arkansas.

McConnell this week rejected the idea of remote voting, instead advocating roll call votes in the chamber with fewer senators there at once to allow “social distancing.”

As concern was building last week, Pelosi told her caucus, “We are the captains of the ship. We are the last to leave.” And on a Monday conference call with House Democrats she beat back calls for remote voting.

The topic is sure to come up again Thursday when Pelosi conducts a conference call with House Democrats.

“It is a cause for concern to have us really putting ourselves and some of our vulnerable members at risk when we are asking the American people to practice safe distancing,” said Representative Ilhan Omar, one of those who signed the Porter letter. “I hope that leadership really listens to our call and makes the necessary adjustments.”

Congress is tradition-bound and there is little precedent for the kind of widespread shutdown of society being caused by the coronavirus.

During a 1918 flu pandemic, work in Congress slowed to a crawl and for a time even the House speaker and Senate majority leader were bedridden, according to the office of the House historian. During October of that year, the House did what it could in so-called “pro forma” sessions where just a few were present to formally clear legislation everyone was agreed to.

That option of getting everyone’s consent is one tool still available to congressional leaders, but it’s challenging to achieve in the current political environment.

Just this week, Representative Louis Gohmert, a Texas Republican, refused for a day to give his OK to a technical fix to a House-passed coronavirus bill that held up passage by the Senate for the measure that included paid six leave and more unemployment insurance.

Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, single-handedly triggered a six-hour government shutdown in 2018 just by saying “I object” when the Senate tried to move a bipartisan budget deal.

Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s governmental affairs institute, said the House appears to have another tool at its disposal.

A 2005 change in House rules allows the chamber to work with a “provisional quorum,” a very small number of lawmakers who can keep the chamber going. It can be triggered jointly by leaders of both parties if, after 72 hours, they can’t convene a simple majority of the House’s 435 members and the House’s sergeant-at-arms issues a “catastrophic quorum failure report.”

The rule doesn’t state a limit on how large that quorum must be, he said. “It could actually be quite small, Huder said.

In the current crisis, the need to bypass possible objections and also let all members record their position on costly and perhaps controversial bills is weighing on lawmakers as the virus spreads even in their own ranks.

Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, developed symptoms over the weekend and has been working from an apartment in Washington while in quarantine, according to a statement from his office late Wednesday. A short time later, Ben McAdams, a Utah Democrat, said that he, too, had tested positive.

Nearly a dozen others have disclosed that they have been exposed to someone else who has been diagnosed with the disease and have self-quarantined to protect others. That includes Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, House Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Ben Ray Lujan, a top member of Pelosi’s leadership team.

Thursday, another House lawmaker added his name to the list. Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, said he was around Diaz-Balart last week “for an extended period of time” and he will seclude himself until March 27.

In a rapidly unfolding crisis, many lawmakers who a day or two ago weren’t contemplating the notion of a roll call vote from back home say it’s clear that a plan needs to come together soon.

“It’s amazing how fast things change around here, right?” said Senator Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican. “I’m anxious today to see if there’s any movement on that possibility. I don’t know how you can have two members of Congress, as far apart as Utah and Florida, have the virus, and not be seriously considering that.”

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—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
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