House Republican leaders have sued to stop a remote voting rule change set to be used in the House for the first time this week, a move that underscores the continuing divide between the two parties over whether it's safe to return to work amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The decision to move ahead with a lawsuit comes as Republicans have questioned the constitutionality of the rules change, while Democrats have defended it.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy filed suit Tuesday against the change along with other Republican lawmakers and constituents from several different states. House Republicans will argue that each individual member will have their vote unconstitutionally diluted by the proxy vote rules change and that constituents will have their representation in Congress diluted by the rules change, according to a GOP leadership aide.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blasted the move in a statement on Tuesday, calling it a "sad stunt."
"House Republicans' sad stunt shows that their only focus is to delay and obstruct urgently-needed action to meet the needs of American workers and families during the coronavirus crisis," she said.
"The House's position that remote voting by proxy during a pandemic is fully consistent with the Constitution is supported by expert legal analyses. Further, the Supreme Court made clear over a century ago that the Constitution empowers each chamber of Congress to set its own procedural rules," Pelosi said.
House Republicans hope that the lawsuit will ultimately block the use of remote voting approved by House Democrats over Republican opposition during the coronavirus pandemic, but do not expect the lawsuit to put a halt to proxy voting as soon as Wednesday. "I don't think it's realistic for the court to adjudicate this that quickly," the aide said.
The aide suggested that there will be legal uncertainty surrounding the validity of any measures passed this week under the rules change pending the outcome of the lawsuit.
"The votes will happen, but I think Democrats should be warned: we may have to come and do these bills over again if the courts side with us," the aide said of legislation slated to be taken up by the House this week.
The lawsuit intensifies the already ongoing partisan fight over the rules change, which was recently enacted during the pandemic.
Democrats, concerned about the safety of returning to the Capitol, pushed through the first-ever change to House rules allowing lawmakers to vote remotely on the floor, by designating members to vote at their direction and on their behalf. They plan this week to employ those rules, which allow a member to vote on behalf of 10 of their colleagues if they're authorized to do so. It's uncertain how many Democrats will use those new rules or return to vote in person, but already more than two dozen Democrats have indicated they plan to vote remotely, a number that will grow up until the deadline Wednesday.
But Republicans are sharply critical of the rules change and argue that the House can return to session by modifying some of their practices to promote social distancing. Most House Republicans are expected to return to the Capitol this week to vote in person despite the new rules allowing lawmakers to vote remotely.
If Republicans decided to vote remotely, they would undercut the concerns party leaders have raised about the constitutionality and the necessity of the new rules.
Several GOP leadership aides said Monday morning that they expect most of their members to return when the House is in session Wednesday and Thursday.
House Republican leaders are circulating a notice urging their conference to vote in person this week if they can "do so safely." Otherwise, members are asked to inform the House GOP whip's office.
The divide within the House reflects the larger split between the two parties about whether it's safe to reopen the economy as quickly as President Donald Trump has sought -- or whether states should be far more cautious in their handling of the public health crisis. The split is often reflected in the actions of some of the members. In recent weeks, most, if not all, House Democrats continue to wear masks while walking through the Capitol, while some prominent Republicans continue to defy the recommendations to wear a face covering.
The House plans to vote this week on changes to the federal Paycheck Protection Program to give small businesses more time to use emergency loans provided under legislation enacted this spring. The House also plans to vote on a measure to reauthorize expired federal surveillance laws, among other measures.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer defended the move to institute the remote voting procedures, referred to on Capitol Hill as "proxy voting." The Maryland Democrat said Tuesday that the new rules are crucial because there are members who have health concerns, face travel hardships and are worried about contracting the disease and exposing it to family members.
"We believe proxy voting is not only consistent with the Constitution but consistent with the responsibility a member has to express the view of their constituents -- whether or not they can get to Washington, DC," Hoyer told reporters.
It remains to be seen how frequently the House plans to employ the new rules. Hoyer indicated to reporters that his focus is to ensure that the House committees are able to work remotely even as the GOP has continued to bash House Democrats for not bringing the chamber back to session. The GOP-led Senate returned for a May session and employed social distancing practices, though the Senate has far fewer members than the House.
"At this point, I'm wondering if we should send senators over there to collect their newspaper and water the plants," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor last week, ridiculing his counterparts across the Capitol.
But McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has faced sharp Democratic criticism for refusing to take up another recovery bill, instead reserving floor time mainly to confirming Trump's stalled judicial and executive branch nominees. McConnell has hit the brakes as he's called for Washington to take stock of the recovery bills that have just gone into effect, but he now says that another bill will likely be needed -- even as House Democrats say action is urgently necessary after they muscled through a sweeping, $3 trillion measure out of their chamber earlier this month.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.