HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Senate on Wednesday approved a rule change that allows all members to vote outside the state Capitol in response to the coronavirus.
While rules previously allowed proxy voting, the 50-member body couldn’t legislate unless at least 26 senators were present on the floor. Lawmakers met Wednesday to approve a resolution that temporarily adjusts this rule so members can participate and vote remotely using technology.
The temporary rule will expire at the end of July or when Gov. Tom Wolf lifts his emergency declaration.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) told reporters following Wednesday’s session that it’s possible no one will preside over the chamber in person, meaning the entire Senate could meet and pass laws virtually. The public will be able to access the proceedings at all times, he said, although details are still being worked out.
Senators will also be able to electronically introduce legislation and have access to “simultaneous, interactive participation” for remote committee meetings, according to the Senate resolution passed unanimously Wednesday.
Twenty-eight senators gathered on the Senate floor, with most lawmakers from Philadelphia and the surrounding counties not in attendance as they heed President Donald Trump and Wolf’s calls for social distancing. Currently, most confirmed cases of COVID-19 are in the southeast, though the number of cases in central and western Pennsylvania is rising.
The House met Monday to temporarily change its rules so members can submit their votes to party leaders and committee chairs, who still must be present in the Capitol if lawmakers want to consider legislation.
House members also shortened the amount of time needed to move bills between the two chambers. The Senate did not follow, but could later vote remotely to suspend the rules to move certain bills more quickly.
State legislatures across the country are grappling with how they will continue to operate during the coronavirus pandemic, with at least 11 postponing or suspending their sessions and several others closing their doors to the public, Governing magazine reported. Pennsylvania closed the Capitol to visitors on Friday and cancelled all public events.
As of late last week, lawmakers had planned to come in for several session days. But in the past few days, the number of COVID-19 cases has grown across the state.
Corman said Wednesday the chamber is still figuring out how it will operate remotely.
“As we all try to be part of this new normal, we still operate under the same spirit and the same guidelines that have always governed us," he said on the floor.
All Senate action for the time being will be focused on the coronavirus response, he added.