Even with Congress out of town because of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, defense lawmakers are hoping to keep the annual defense authorization bill process on track through a series of “paper” hearings on key military issues.

Senate Armed Services Committee officials announced the change in procedure on Wednesday, as senators prepared to take their last votes for several weeks. Senate leadership has planned to break for nearly a month after the expected passage late Wednesday of a $2 trillion emergency funding package related to the pandemic.

Committee leaders said in a statement that they are “committed to continuing congressional oversight and data collection necessary to drafting the national defense authorization act,” an annual defense budget policy measure that has advanced through Congress for more than 50 years.

However, panel members noted that “to protect the health of everyone involved, traditional hearings are not possible under current conditions.”

Typically, the committee and its House counterpart hold dozens of defense posture hearings throughout March and April in advance of separate markups of authorization bill drafts. Those events feature top Pentagon leaders, service chiefs and experts, and outside advocates for the defense industry.

Only a few of those hearings took place before health measures related to the coronavirus outbreak were put in place earlier this month. The Senate Armed Services Committee hasn’t held a public hearing in two weeks.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump recommended severe restrictions on normal daily activities in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 20,000 individuals worldwide.

They included limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer people, making most congressional hearings impossible.

Instead, the new “paper” hearings will involve the public posting of all witness testimony, as well as statements from key senators. Instead of the live question-and-answer format, “the committee intends to post member questions and witnesses within one week of posting opening statements.”

The new format will start this Thursday, with the previously scheduled posture hearing for the Army. Witness statements from service leaders will be posted on the committee’s web site starting at 9:30 a.m.

“When conditions allow for a return to traditional hearings, SASC will transition back to that preferred mode,” committee leaders said in a statement. “In addition, the committee is exploring other ways to continue these critical oversight functions.”

House Armed Services Committee leaders have not yet said if they will adopt a similar procedure for upcoming hearings. Numerous committee staff across Capitol Hill have spent recent days looking into alternative ways to complete routine business from remote locations.

Both the House and Senate military oversight panels have said they hope to stick to their schedule of marking up their authorization bill drafts in late spring, although circumstances may force a delay in that timeline.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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