U.S. House Democrats push for new rules to allow remote voting amid coronavirus

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol is seen from the Washington Monument in Washington

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A large group of U.S. House of Representatives Democrats pushed on Monday for the chamber to allow its members to vote remotely during the coronavirus outbreak over Republican objections if there is no agreement this week on how to do so.

The call came as both the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-led Senate prepared to go back into full session on May 4 after a month's recess prompted by the fast-spreading disease that has killed more than 55,000 Americans.

The 100-member House "New Democrat Coalition" said lawmakers should find a way to work remotely when necessary, until public health officials provide guidance that it would be safe for all lawmakers and staff to physically return to the House full-time.

Businesses, schools and even the U.S. Supreme Court have adopted new teleworking systems to allow them to function while their employees, students and justices maintain the social distance from one another that public health officials advise is critical to slowing the spread of the new coronavirus.

Last week the House postponed a vote to set up remote proxy voting and virtual committee work, after Republicans protested, instead agreeing to a bipartisan commission to study the matter.

"While we hope a bipartisan agreement with Republican leadership that results in temporary remote capabilities on the floor and in committees can be reached in the coming days, if House Republican leadership does not engage on this matter in a constructive way, we must move forward," the New Democrats' statement said.

Congress has not met in regular session since last month, though lawmakers have passed major coronavirus relief bills worth nearly $3 trillion, partly by using rules allowing bills to pass with just a small number of lawmakers present at any one time.

During a conference call Monday, some House Democrats expressed unhappiness with the decision for the chamber to return to Washington next week. Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz called it "dangerous," a Democrat on the call said.

Republicans have been arguing for all lawmakers to get back to Washington, echoing Republican President Donald Trump's urging that the country should reopen quickly now that new cases of the virus are declining in some areas.

Democratic leaders have said their next priority will be passing aid to help state and local governments.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile told Fox Radio his next "red line" would be measures to protect businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits when states lift pandemic restrictions.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Scott Malone and Tom Brown)