WASHINGTON — When the 117th Congress convenes in January, COVID-19 precautions will prevent the 435 House members from gathering in the chamber together, so opening day festivities of swearing in members and electing the speaker will look a little different.
House leaders have begun discussing how to carry out the traditions of starting a new Congress while upholding social distancing practices to keep members, staff and Capitol Hill workers safe.
The Democratic leadership team held a call Thursday night to address voting procedures and other details for the opening of the 117th Congress in which several options were discussed and no decisions were made, according to a leadership aide.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said some things are easier to plan for than others, like the speaker's election.
"Voting for speaker is not a problem, because we can vote the same way we do here," the Maryland Democrat said in an interview Friday.
Hoyer was referring to how the House has been conducting voting during the pandemic: Members in the Capitol vote in staggered groups to prevent crowding in the chamber, and those unable to travel to Washington can vote by proxy.
More complicated is planning for the swearing-in of members. Members in Washington can be sworn in in groups, Hoyer said. But the tricky part is figuring out how to accommodate those who are unable to travel for health reasons.
"The issue was raised before, and the parliamentarian ruled you had to be there. He ruled essentially you couldn't be sworn through television," Hoyer said. "So I don't know exactly how we're going to do it for people who are unable to come."
While that hasn't been resolved, Hoyer said he personally doesn't see why swearing-in couldn't be conducted virtually "if we can vote virtually and make big decisions virtually."
Under the Constitution, opening day of each Congress is supposed to be Jan. 3. In 2021 that falls on a Sunday, so leaders are likely to move the date to Jan. 4 or Jan. 5, which requires both chambers passing a resolution agreeing to the date change.