Enormous coronavirus bill passes House vote

Capitol Hill. Photo: White House.

WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives voted Friday to approve a massive $2 trillion stimulus bill that policy makers hope will blunt the economic destruction of the coronavirus pandemic, sending the legislation to President Donald Trump for enactment.

The legislation passed in dramatic fashion, approved on an overwhelming voice vote by lawmakers who’d been forced to return to Washington by a GOP colleague who had insisted on a quorum being present. Some lawmakers came from New York and other places where residents are supposed to be sheltering at home.

The procedural move by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., drew bipartisan fury, including from President Trump who derided him over Twitter as a “grandstander” who should be tossed out of the Republican Party.

Massie, who opposes the legislation because it adds to the deficit, insisted over Twitter that he’d “sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution” and was simply upholding that oath. The Constitution specifies that a quorum — or majority of the House — should be present for legislative business, but that is rarely enforced.

The vote came in a fast-paced series of events Friday afternoon, following about four hours of debate during which lawmakers of both parties rose in turn to speak in favor of the legislation, which will send $1,200 checks to many Americans and hundreds of billions to small and large businesses.

Once Trump signs the measure into law, the White House, Treasury Department, Small Business Administration and other agencies will have to scramble to put it into law, as many households and businesses have seen their cashflow dramatically interrupted by the country’s economic shutdown.

As House debate drew to a close, congressional leaders urged lawmakers to file into the galleries overlooking the House floor — where the public usually sits — in order to attempt to maintain social distancing among the well over 200 lawmakers present. Some lawmakers had been watching the debate from their offices to avoid crowding onto the House floor, in accordance to guidance from the House Sergeant at Arms.

“Come on my colleagues, to the gallery,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said as she delivered closing remarks.

“Today as we have all acknowledged our nation faces an economic and health emergency of historic proportions,” Pelosi said.

As Pelosi spoke, Massie stood in the center aisle, getting ready to demand a vote. He stared over and over at his phone, talking to no one.

Then the vote was called and Massie sought recognition. “Mr. Speaker, I came here to make sure our republic doesn’t die by unanimous consent in an empty chamber, and I request a recorded vote.”

Massie’s request was denied as members asked to stand up to back him up remained seated. He asked for a quorum call; a quorum was deemed present.

After Rep. Anthony brown gaveled the vote shut, cheers erupted on both sides.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy elbow bumped a top leadership aid who’d counted numbers in his head. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, walked across the aisle and elbow bumped Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. A few curses seemed to be hurled from rank-and-file members on both sides.

And Massie walked to the back of the chamber, on the center aisle, talking to some of his most conservative allies, such as Rep. Justin Amash, I-Mich., none of whom backed him up.

The House will now recess for weeks, at least.

Meanwhile, though, the fear in the room could be seen.

Several members wore surgical gloves. Others went to great lengths to place themselves far away from others. Some held their hand over their face as they passed other lawmakers or staff.

Senior aides walked around the room prepping lawmakers for the tricky vote, waving their arms in a downward motion reminding those in the gallery above to stay seated when Massie asked for his vote.

To ensure they had at least 216, senior aides in both parties did the least technological count possible – pacing the room and counting off in their head how many were on hand.

Many were furious at Massie.

“It’s an act of vanity and selfishness that goes beyond comprehension,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., saying Massie was putting people’s health at risk and forcing the House to model poor public health procedures. “He should be ashamed of himself and the country should scorn him.”

Some New Yorkers returned to Washington even though the federal government has said people from that state should quarantine for 14 days after leaving.

Many members were not happy about needing to come back to the tight quarters of the Capitol. Two members have tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and a number of others were quarantined after showing symptoms or coming into contact with potentially infected individuals.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., wrote on Twitter that “Heading to the airport now to vote in DC. am going just like every person that picks our food, works at a hospital, picks up the garbage.”

He wrote that he was returning to Washington “because it is my [expletive] job. But I get a comfortable salary, our essential workers should get same.”

As some members boarded red-eyes or early flights, others were making long drives.

The House Sergeant at Arms set out strict procedures for Friday’s proceedings in the House, including urging members and staff to maintain a six-foot distance from one another and limiting access to the House Chamber to those scheduled to speak at any given time. Members were urged to use the stairs instead of elevators, which at normal times are stuffed with lawmakers rubbing shoulders with one another. The Speaker’s Lobby, the area off the floor where reporters gather in crowds to interview lawmakers, will be shut.

The developments Friday were just the latest twist for a bill that underwent a week of contentious negotiations in the Senate before ultimately passing 96-0 on Wednesday night.

The bill contains multiple provisions aimed at propping up an economy shuddering from the impacts of the coronavirus, which has sent jobless claims skyrocketing and the stock market plummeting as many Americans stay in their homes to avoid contracting or spreading covid-19.

More than 150 million households would receive checks under the legislation, which will send payments of $1,200 to many individual Americans plus $500 for children. People with incomes above $99,000 are not eligible, and the total benefit is phased out for people earning between $75,000 and $99,000.

The bill includes almost $400 billion to help small businesses retain their payrolls and $250 billion to boost unemployment insurance, offering $600 per week for four months for laid-off workers, on top of whatever benefits their states may provide.

It contains hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency federal aid for large corporations suffering due to the coronavirus outbreak, a provision that sparked days of intense partisan conflict and a frenzied push from lobbyists and corporations eager to secure a chunk of the funding.

The final legislation will provide $25 billion in grants and $25 billion in loans to passenger airlines; $17 billion in loans to industries deemed critical to “national security” – a provision aimed at helping Boeing – and $425 billion in loans and loan guarantees for other large firms, a fund for which cities and states can also apply.

Trump touted the legislation in an interview Thursday night with Sean Hannity on Fox News.

“The workers are going to get $3,000 for a family of four. They’re going to get all sorts of things that they, frankly, in many cases, they wouldn’t have even gotten if they had the job, if they didn’t have to go through this hell. And it’s – it’s a wonderful thing,” Trump said.

The president went on to say “A lot of this money is going to save Boeing. It’s going to save the airline industry. And, you know, that means not only does it mean what it says, it also means tremendous jobs. We can’t let Boeing go. You know, Boeing had a problem, big one to start off with, and on top of it, this happened. And we’ll save Boeing and we’ll save the airlines and we’ll save other companies.”

The conditions on the large pool of funding became a major sticking point through congressional negotiations. Democrats won some concessions but not others. In the final bill, businesses receiving the loan cannot cut their employment levels by more than 10% until Sept. 30. They have some restrictions on executive compensation above $425,000 annually and cannot issue stock buybacks, a limitation supported by Trump.

Included are measures ensuring swift disclosure of funding recipients, as well as an oversight board to probe the Treasury’s decisions. The president, vice president, members of Congress and members of the cabinet are also prohibited from benefiting from the aid – a measure that also applies to their spouses and children. The direct grant funding for the airlines also has strict limitations and is required to go directly to workers or their benefits.

As Massie sat in the Chamber on Friday, one lawmaker after another, Republican and Democrat, stood up to insist the severity of the crisis required immediate action.

“Congress must act aggressively and work together now,” said Brady.

Two podiums were set up for speakers during debate, with a hand sanitizer bottle under the podium and a canister of disinfectant wipes on the chair next to the podium. When each speaker finished, he or she took their turn wiping down the podium and the microphone from which they were speaking, before giving way to the next speaker.

With tensions running high, there was an uproar at one point as Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., tried to speak over her allotted time, wearing pink latex gloves and gesturing in animation as she asked for more time to thank medical professionals at the frontline of the crisis.”

“I rise before you donning these latex gloves not for personal attention, not for personal attention, but to encourage you to take this disease seriously,” Stevens shouted as she was gaveled out of order. “I rise for every American who is scared right now.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., from the epicenter of the health crisis in Queens, rose to denounce the bill and the choice lawmakers are being forced to make faced with legislation that she said creates a corporate bailout while also provided needed funds to hospitals and front-line workers.

“Our community’s reality is this country’s future if we don’t do anything. Hospital workers don’t have the necessary equipment,” she said, calling it “shameful, and the option that we have is either to let them suffer with nothing or allow this greed.”

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