Dick Durbin raised the obvious -- yet unasked and unanswered -- question Tuesday of why the Senate and its staffers are meeting as usual in person when most of the rest of the country is being told to stay home and maintain social distances.
The Illinois Democrat's question had a political edge to it because he was not pleased that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had called to Senate back in to act on pending legislation that it could have passed by unanimous consent on Saturday. Those measures were passing the House's latest coronavirus funding bill, and temporarily extending the law that lets the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court continue running.
But regardless of the timing by McConnell, Durbin's question remains, especially after McConnell declared Tuesday that the Senate will remain in session until it comes up with and passes a third Covid-19 package aimed at shoring up the economy.
"We have to think anew about the way the Senate does business," Durbin said in Senate floor remarks. "If we're telling people to do their work from home when possible, teleconferencing as opposed to being physically present at work, what are we doing to achieve the same thing?"
The average age in the Senate is over 60. About 48 over them over the high-risk age of 65, when if comes to the dangers of the new coronavirus. McConnell is 78. Durbin is 75.
His suggestion was for lawmakers to go to teleconferences and Skype, especially while they try to hash out the details of what is likely be a massive economic rescue package related to the coronavirus pandemic.
"We have a long list of particulars, of things that we think will be helpful to get this economy back on its feet by starting with families and workers and expanding it to small businesses. it's a long list," he said, noting that it will take a lot of discussions to work out.
"How are we going to consider those? Are we going to meet as committees as we ordinarily do in the same room when we've been advised that that is not a good idea from a public health viewpoint or do it by teleconferencing and Skyping and using modern technology?" Durbin asked
"It's time for the Senate to wake up to the 21st Century and making sure we're using technology that allows us to communicate with each other without any danger or risk to public health," he said.
Durbin also raised the issue of how the Senate votes, suggesting that members might not have to be present on the floor to register their ayes and noes. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), the top Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee was looking into the issue.
A spokesperson for Rules Committee Chairman Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
McConnell later threw cold water on the idea of remote voting.
"We'll not be doing that," he told reporters.
He said votes could be lengthened or staggered so that smaller groups of senators need to come to the floor at any one time, or the Senate could come up with similar ideas that would be in the rules.
"We will deal with the social distancing issues without fundamentally changing Senate rules," McConnell said.
Such solutions would not deal with staffers and other onsite meeting concerns, however.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said later that his side was meeting more by teleconference and that he attended the Democrats' weekly luncheon remotely, with just two other people in the room with him.
But he did not commit to pushing for remote votes.
"I think we have to do our job first in whichever way we do it. OK? That's for sure," Schumer told reporters. "There's such a crisis here that we are needed to be working and getting the job done in whatever the quickest, best, healthiest way is."