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Growing number of House Republicans warm to proxy voting

The Hill logo The Hill 12/27/2020 Cristina Marcos
Greg Gianforte wearing a suit and tie smiling and looking at the camera: Growing number of House Republicans warm to proxy voting © Greg Nash Growing number of House Republicans warm to proxy voting

A number of House Republicans who previously opposed Democrats' proxy voting system to let lawmakers vote remotely during the pandemic have begun embracing it in recent weeks.

Most of the Republicans who've warmed to proxy voting are leaving Congress and have little to lose politically by utilizing proxy voting at the end of their terms.

But it's nevertheless a sharp turnaround, as lawmakers who voted against establishing the rules changes to adjust to the pandemic or signed on to a lawsuit challenging the proxy voting system as unconstitutional are now authorizing Democrats to cast votes on their behalf.

House GOP leaders and the party's campaign arm, meanwhile, are still attacking Democrats for using proxy voting, even as more of their own members have begun partaking in the system.

Four of the Republican lawmakers who have utilized proxy voting in recent days - Reps. Greg Gianforte (Mont.), John Shimkus (Ill.), Francis Rooney (Fla.) and Paul Mitchell (Mich.) - are leaving Congress at the end of the session. Mitchell also announced earlier this month that he was leaving the GOP over disagreements with President Trump's efforts to overturn the election.

But Mitchell and Gianforte signed on as plaintiffs earlier this year to the GOP's lawsuit challenging proxy voting. That lawsuit was later dismissed by a federal judge in August. The GOP has appealed.

The House general counsel representing Democrats in the lawsuit seized on Mitchell's and Gianforte's reversals.

"Two plaintiffs' use of remote voting also reaffirms the compelling interests that led the House to adopt the rules-permitting the House to conduct its business safely during a crisis while maximizing representation in Congress," Douglas Letter, the House general counsel, wrote in a letter filed with the court on Dec. 23.

A fifth lawmaker, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), voted against enacting proxy voting in May but authorized Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) this month to cast votes on his behalf on legislation to avert a government shutdown.

Gaetz's office pointed to a tweet from the Florida Republican defending his decision to vote by proxy.

"Where has everyone been? I've railed against the Republican position on remote voting for awhile. Thank you Tulsi!" Gaetz wrote.

He linked to an op-ed he wrote last month for the Washington Examiner in which he explained why he now believes being able to vote remotely is a good thing: "To date, I've toed the party line, but no more: the Republicans are wrong."

"To put it bluntly, after four years in Congress, I'm convinced that time in Washington doesn't make any of us better. Time at home reminds us of our priorities and our purpose," Gaetz wrote.

However, an Instagram photo flagged by the progressive American Independent shows Gaetz at a gala at Trump's Mar-a-Lago club on Dec. 18, one of the days on which he voted by proxy.

Rooney was the first House Republican to express support for allowing lawmakers to vote remotely during the pandemic so that they could still participate if they had to quarantine because of COVID-19 exposure, got sick themselves or otherwise couldn't travel to Washington.

Rooney said at the time that when the House adopted the rules changes in May, he would have voted for it if he had been physically present in the Capitol that day.

Rooney designated Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) to serve as his proxy in June, but House GOP leadership urged him against moving forward with it. Rooney ultimately began voting by proxy starting in late July after the GOP's lawsuit had been heard in court, arguing that "remote voting effectuates social distancing and follows proper health procedures."

Mitchell, meanwhile, tweeted in early December that he and his wife have asthma and that his physician "implored" him not to travel to Washington in the weeks after Thanksgiving.

"I will not risk my family's health in order to vote on key items," Mitchell wrote.

The GOP lawsuit, led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), argued that "it is simply impossible to read the Constitution and overlook its repeated and emphatic requirement that Members of Congress actually assemble in their respective chambers when they vote, whether on matters as weighty as declaring war or as ordinary as naming a bridge."

And on Dec. 21, the day that the House passed a combined government spending and coronavirus relief package, the National Republican Congressional Committee blasted Democrats for voting by proxy without acknowledging the Republicans who had done the same.

The other lawmakers who voted by proxy did not provide public explanations for their change in positions. A spokesperson for McCarthy also didn't return a request for comment.

Shimkus, Gaetz and Rooney didn't sign on to the lawsuit as plaintiffs. But Shimkus issued a statement in May calling proxy voting "unconstitutional."

Since then, Shimkus authorized House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) to serve as his proxy, while Gianforte chose Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) and Mitchell selected Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) to vote on their behalf.

Most Republicans who haven't been physically present in the House chamber to vote opted to simply be marked as absent for a given roll call instead of using a proxy.

House Democrats are expected to continue allowing proxy voting in the next session of Congress as the pandemic goes on. But House members will have to at least vote in person before a new rules package is adopted, including on the first vote of the session to elect the Speaker.

While the handful of Republicans and dozens of Democrats utilizing proxy voting can stay away from the Capitol, designated lawmakers such as Beyer are on the hook to vote in person on others' behalf each day that the House is in session.

Beyer, who represents a Northern Virginia district a short drive from the Capitol, has been serving as a proxy for Rooney as well as several Democratic colleagues.

"I'm carrying more proxies than any other single person," Beyer said. "It just means that I'm there for five to 10 minutes rather than 20 seconds in and out."

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