House Debates Virus Economic Aid Bill Amid Health Precautions

The U.S. House debated amid extraordinary health precautions Thursday — with most members wearing masks — leading up to expected final passage of a $484 billion interim coronavirus rescue plan to bolster the American economy.

A roll-call vote is anticipated by mid-afternoon on the measure that would add new funds to the Paycheck Protection Program of loans to small businesses. Members took turns in the chamber to debate the bill, the first time they’ve convened as a group since March 27. Most support the new proposal, and President Donald Trump has promised to sign it.

The debate and votes are being carried out with carefully choreographed movement and spacing of lawmakers to guard against spreading any infection. Many House members are taking advice to wear masks, and there will be a break in the session to disinfect the House chamber itself.

Democrats and Republicans alike spoke in favor of the aid measure, saying they want to protect Americans’ health and help prop up the flagging economy.

27,639 in U.S.Most new cases today

-18% Change in MSCI World Index of global stocks since Wuhan lockdown, Jan. 23

-1.​133 Change in U.S. treasury bond yield since Wuhan lockdown, Jan. 23

-0.​5% Global GDP Tracker (annualized), March

“We are all painfully aware that the American people are worried about their health, their jobs, the economy, and what life will look like after the emergency subsides,” said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal in opening debate on the relief bill. He said it “does not come close” to addressing the nation’s needs, though, and that lawmakers are already working on another measure.

“This fourth bill replenishes the crucial help for Main Street businesses and local health care providers while devoting more resources to producing more tests and distributing more quickly,” said Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Ways and Means Republican. “It will have an immediate impact. And it deserves strong, bipartisan support.”

Still, lawmakers couldn’t resist taking political potshots at each other. Brady accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of delaying action on the bill while the economy faltered. Pelosi responded that Democrats ensured that it includes new aid for hospitals and virus testing, as well as stricter rules to send small-business aid to those with less access to bank loans.

Democratic Representative Kathy Castor of Florida held the gavel to oversee the initial debate while wearing a mask, as did House staff on the rostrum. House Chaplain Patrick Conroy began the session with a prayer, his voice muffled slightly by a large yellow scarf tied around his nose and mouth.

“These are days of great political, social and economic stress in our nation, and those whose work is to legislate through this pandemic are naturally under considerable pressure,” Conroy said. “Give us all patience, especially with one another.”

House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters of California said she’s dedicating the legislation “to my dear sister,” who she said is dying in a hospital of coronavirus.

Masked Lawmakers

Many members and staff wore plain surgical-style masks, but others personalized their protective gear. Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern, the Rules Committee chairman, wore a Boston sports themed face covering as he addressed the chamber. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi moved her silk scarf to her neck once she was at the podium, and several House members followed suit when it was their time to speak and removed masks to talk.

Unlike the Senate, which passed the latest emergency package in a quick voice vote with only a handful of senators present, the possibility of an objection from either party meant that at least half of the 429 current House members had to travel to Washington despite the risks from the pandemic.

House leaders have yet to agree on any alternative voting plan, whether electronic voting from their homes or allowing members to bring proxy votes from other lawmakers to the chamber. Democrats had planned to adopt a proxy system Thursday, but the matter was put off amid Republican opposition.

McGovern, who supported the alternative voting proposal, criticized the way Congress is meeting to cast votes in person during a health crisis as “unacceptable and dangerous,” not just to lawmakers, but “everyone we come in contact with.” He said the House is “not adequately prepared to do our business during an pandemic.”

“The year is 2020,” McGovern said, and “technology has advanced and improved considerably over the last 231 years.” He said there are low-tech approaches and higher-tech ways to deal with remote participation by lawmakers.

The first item on the agenda is a proposal to establish a panel to oversee coronavirus spending. That vote will go first; then the House will take a 30-minute break so the chamber can be cleaned before members are brought back for the vote on the aid package.

Votes on the two measures -- taking as long as one hour each, as members will enter the chamber in groups of 60 -- are expected to begin at about 1:30 p.m.

The stimulus package, which passed the Senate Tuesday, is viewed as an interim step as the coronavirus pandemic causes more deaths and economic havoc.

It includes $320 billion to make new loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans to small business that keep employees on the payroll for eight weeks. The bill sets aside $30 billion of the loans for banks and credit unions with $10 billion to $50 billion in assets, and another $30 billion for even smaller institutions.

The measure includes $60 billion in loans and grants under a separate Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, and makes farms and ranches eligible for the loans. Also, there is $75 billion for hospitals, with a significant portion aimed at those in rural areas, and $25 billion for virus testing.

The testing funds include $18 billion for states, localities, territories, and tribes to conduct Covid-19 tests, $1 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and $1.8 billion for the National Institutes of Health. As much as $1 billion would cover costs of testing for the uninsured.

Trump and congressional leaders are already talking about another phase of rescue legislation, though the path to an agreement may be difficult.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed skepticism Wednesday about providing funds for state and local governments -- the top priority for Democrats and one supported so far by Trump.

Congress isn’t scheduled to return to Washington until May 4, though negotiations and drafting of the next bill can take place without most lawmakers in town.

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