Two members of Congress have been diagnosed with COVID-19 so far.
Congressional leaders are resisting calls to let lawmakers vote remotely, a dispute pitting the scourge of the coronavirus against two centuries of tradition that underscores Washington's struggle to adapt to swiftly evolving recommendations for coping with the pandemic.
Advocates of the voting change cite the health perils of air travel at a time when health experts want people to avoid crowds. They argue that as infections spread — including to Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida and Ben McAdams of Utah — it may become all but impossible for many lawmakers to journey to the Capitol because of the growing risk of getting the virus.
“There was a time when physical presence was the only way to make sure that a person was present and voting," said No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Dick Durbin. “I think that technology gives us other options and we better exercise them."
So far, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have taken steps to reduce the risks of lawmakers in the Capitol infecting each other. But they've opposed letting them cast votes electronically from their home districts.
"Come in and vote and depart the chamber so we don't have gaggles of conversations here on the floor," McConnell (R-KY) advised senators Wednesday. McConnell said that to help prevent lawmakers from crowding together, he would prolong the time allowed for what are supposed to be 15-minute roll calls. The day's first lasted 50 minutes.
McConnell put his foot down Tuesday against remote voting, saying, "We'll not be doing that."
"We will deal with the social distancing issue without fundamentally changing Senate rules," McConnell said.
Pelosi (D-CA), whose hometown of San Francisco is among many Bay Area communities whose residents have been ordered to stay home, has also opposed the idea.
The dispute comes amid a confusing jumble of government decrees aimed at halting the coronavirus' spread, edicts that vary by jurisdiction and often tighten by the day.
Schools and restaurants have been closed in many states but not all, and people are being ordered to stay home for two weeks or more in some communities but not others. While some officials initially advised against events with crowds exceeding 1,000, that number has gradually dropped. Donald Trump on Monday suggested avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people.
Underscoring lawmakers' shifting attitudes, Sen. Dianne Feinstein D-CA) said about voting, "Showing up is important. Now in the middle of a pandemic now, maybe that changes. Ask me in a day or so." Feinstein, 86, is the Senate's oldest member.
The idea of remote voting, while not new, would present hurdles, including assuring that the system is secure. Lawmakers would also have to overcome a reluctance to being seen as shirking their jobs if they're not present for votes.
It would also be a sharp break from history. Members must cast votes in person during roll calls on the House and Senate floors.
Supporters say remote voting would reduce infections that members might incur and spread to their families and coworkers, and let them show they are practicing the behavior the nation's leaders want the public to adopt.
"There's no reason not to model for our country what we're asking our fellow Americans to do right now," said Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA).
Porter, Eric Swalwell (D-CA), and Van Taylor (R-TX) released a letter Wednesday that they're sending House leaders proposing a rules change to allow remote voting during the emergency.
"While Congress is an institution with a proud history, we cannot stand on tradition if it puts lives — and our ability to be the voice of our constituents — at risk," the letter says. Porter said the letter had 45 signatures as of Tuesday, though only a handful were Republicans.
Last week, Pelosi rebuffed House Democrats at a closed-door meeting who'd suggested letting lawmakers leave the Capitol and vote electronically from their home districts, participants in the session said.
"We are the captains of the ship. We are the last to leave," Pelosi said, according to a person who described the private meeting on condition of anonymity.
Porter, a freshman, said she also encountered resistance from Pelosi when she discussed remote voting with her last week on the House floor.
"I respectfully think that the goal is to evacuate the ship, to get everybody off safely," Porter said Tuesday in an interview.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. In the United States, about 6,500 people have been diagnosed and more than 110 have died.
According to a 2018 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the average age of the House the previous year was nearly 58. It was almost 62 in the Senate, one of the oldest marks in the chamber's history.
Because ideas about responding to the outbreak change so swiftly, no one is certain whether the opposition Pelosi and McConnell have voiced will hold as the virus spreads.
"What seems unrealistic today may not seem so unrealistic tomorrow," said Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA).
Many members of Congress have already curtailed face-to-face meetings with visitors, and many of their staffs are already working from home. Lawmakers have discussed having fewer committee hearings or holding them remotely.
But critics say that travel to Washington is the toughest problem to overcome.
"The harder part is getting people there, getting folks that have to fly from all over the country, or just getting folks in their 70s, 80s, or 90s driving from New York or driving from Florida," said Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA).