Armed with hand sanitizer and discouraged from using elevators, members of the U.S. House of Representatives convened on Friday to quickly pass a sweeping $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill as President Donald Trump criticized a Republican lawmaker who threatened to delay passage.
Leadership of the Democratic-controlled chamber and top Republicans aimed to pass the largest relief measure that Congress has ever taken up in a voice vote, one of the fastest methods available, and pass it on to the Republican president for his signature.
“Today’s vote is about saving lives and livelihoods,” said Republican Representative Kevin Brady.
Lawmakers sat several seats apart from each other, maintaining distance as they waited for a chance to speak. The House scheduled three hours of debate, headed toward a possible vote around noon EDT (1600 GMT).
There could be opposition. Republican Representative Thomas Massie said on Thursday that he was uncomfortable with the idea of allowing the massive package to pass by voice vote and indicated he may force the chamber to hold a formal, recorded vote. That could delay action until Saturday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters the chamber will pass the package on Friday but did not say whether they would have to hold a formal vote. “We’ll see,” she said.
As the debate unfurled, Massie sat toward the back of the chamber, chatting with other Republicans. It was unclear whether he would speak.
Trump lashed out at Massie on Twitter, calling him a “third rate Grandstander.”
“He just wants the publicity. He can’t stop it, only delay,” the president wrote in a series of tweets. “…. throw Massie out of Republican Party!”
To minimize the threat of infection due to the coronavirus, the Capitol has laid out special procedures. Members are barred from sitting next to one another and would be called from their offices alphabetically for the vote. They will be required to use hand sanitizer before entering the chamber and encouraged to take the stairs, rather than use elevators, to better maintain social distancing.
Representative Brett Guthrie, one of Massie’s fellow Kentucky Republicans, said he believed that a majority of House lawmakers would be present for the vote. That could ease Massie’s concerns that a voice vote would violate the U.S. Constitution.
“I think we’ll be fine,” he told reporters.
Lawmakers at risk
Most of the House’s 430 current members are in their home districts because of the coronavirus outbreak and would need to go to Washington if Massie forces a recorded vote – which could put them at further risk of contagion. At least three members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus and more than two dozen have self-quarantined to limit its spread.
Older people have proven especially vulnerable to the disease, and the average age of House members was 58 years old at the beginning of 2019, well above the average age of 38 for the U.S. population as whole.
The rescue package – which would be the largest fiscal relief measure ever passed by Congress – will rush direct payments to Americans within three weeks if the House backs it and Trump signs it into law. It passed the Republican-led Senate unanimously on Wednesday night.
The $2.2 trillion measure includes $500 billion to help hard-hit industries and $290 billion for payments of up to $3,000 to millions of families.
It will also provide $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.
The rare but deep, bipartisan support in Congress underscored how seriously lawmakers are taking the global pandemic as Americans suffer and the medical system threatens to buckle.
Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – whose district is in New York City, the epicentre in the United States of the virus – said she would support the bill despite her qualms about its support for large businesses.
“Our community’s reality is this country’s future if we don’t do anything,” she said.
The United States surpassed China and Italy on Thursday as the country with the most coronavirus cases. The number of U.S. cases passed 85,000, and the death toll exceeded 1,200.
The Labor Department on Thursday reported the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits surged to 3.28 million, the highest level ever.
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