WASHINGTON (Reuters) – 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, though it was unclear whether they would be forced to delay.
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 Republican President Donald Trump for his signature.
“Today’s vote is about saving lives and livelihoods,” said Republican Representative Kevin Brady. “Congress must act together and act aggressively now to stem this crisis.”
As debate commenced, 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 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.
As the House debated, 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.
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.
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 $5 00 billion to help hard-hit industries and $290 billion for payments of up to $3,000 to millions of families.
The legislation 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.
VOICE VOTE SOUGHT
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.
Pelosi said House leaders were planning to fast-track the rescue plan by passing it via a voice vote on Friday. She had said that if there were calls for a roll-call vote, lawmakers might be able to vote remotely as not all would be able to be in Washington.
It was unclear whether Massie would block the measure.
“I’m having a real hard time with this,” Massie, an outspoken fiscal conservative, said on 55KRC talk radio in Cincinnati.
Democratic Representative Dean Phillips asked Massie on Twitter to let his colleagues know if he intended to delay the bill’s passage “RIGHT NOW so we can book flights and expend about $200,000 in taxpayer money to counter your principled but terribly misguided stunt.”
The United States surpassed China and Italy on Thursday as the country with the most coronavirus cases. The number of U.S. cases passed 82,000, and the death toll reached almost 1,200.
The Labor Department reported the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits surged to 3.28 million, the highest level ever.
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