House debates coronavirus bill under procedural threat

Leaders from both sides hope to pass economic stimulus bill by voice vote, but members have threatened to derail plans

Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., takes a video for his Facebook page on his way to vote on the coronavirus economic stimulus bill in the House on Friday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., takes a video for his Facebook page on his way to vote on the coronavirus economic stimulus bill in the House on Friday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 27, 2020 at 11:02am, Updated at 1:10pm

The House on Friday debated the $2.3 trillion coronavirus economic stimulus bill that is supported by both parties but could be derailed if a single member objects to leaders' plans to pass the legislation by voice vote.

The aid bill, passed 96-0 in the Senate late Wednesday, would provide direct financial assistance to individual Americans, expand unemployment insurance and help small businesses that have closed to try to reduce the spread of the disease. It also includes substantial funding to help hospitals and doctors prepare for a wave of patients and funding for government departments working to reduce the virus’ impact.

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Attendance in the chamber was expected to be low because of coronavirus-related quarantines and travel restrictions, but members rushed back to the Capitol from their home districts for the vote.

More than 240 members were counted in the chamber as representatives from both parties spoke in support of the bill, many saying it was flawed for different reasons but necessary.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., was among the members who drove back from their home states to help try to establish a quorum for Friday’s session.

“To all of us, it’s frightening. It’s a nightmare. This bill is a partial response to end that disruption,” he said. “To you who oppose this bill, please, please stand down. We can’t wait another day to help. Don’t add to this disruption by, in fact, being a disruptor. Be a leader.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the bill “the largest assistance measure in American history. It is bold, bipartisan and targeted to achieve the mission at hand.”

Some members, mostly Republicans, complained about provisions in the bill and could protest it passing by voice vote. Leaders hoped those members would express their dissent on the floor without throwing up any procedural hurdles.

Kentucky Republican Rep. Thomas Massie told 55KRC talk radio in Cincinnati on Thursday that he opposed the stimulus bill and suggested he was considering asking for a roll call vote or objecting if there was no quorum.

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“I’m having a really hard time with this. Because they’re saying, ‘Well it’s hard to travel,’ yadda yadda yadda,” Massie said. “Well, last night, 96 out of 100 senators voted. All we would need is 218 out of 435 to vote.”

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President Donald Trump unleashed on Massie on Twitter as members gathered Friday, calling him a “third rate Grandstander” and calling his actions “dangerous & costly.”

Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy strode into the chamber and made a beeline for Massie, sitting as close as social distancing would allow. He used his fingers to mark a ticking list of arguments, to which Massie responded. The animated conversation swiftly moved from the GOP side of the aisle to the front of the chamber. McCarthy, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Massie huddled together, Pelosi and McCarthy seeming to work together to try to convince Massie to not request a recorded vote.

“No. no. We’re not going to have a recorded vote,” Pelosi was heard telling Massie.

Once it became clear that enough members would be present to muster a quorum, lawmakers were advised by leadership from both parties to remain seated if Massie requested a recorded vote.

Requests for recorded votes are only automatic under House rules in precedents when a quorum is not present in the chamber. It's normally not strictly enforced, but under House rules one-fifth of a quorum of the House is supposed to stand and be counted in order to second a recorded vote request.

The coordinated effort to oppose the recorded vote is reminiscent of Senate action in 2015, when senators joined to prevent Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah the “sufficent second” needed to force roll call votes on amendments in that chamber.

When the House came into session at 9 a.m. there were about 45 members on the floor — some sitting six feet apart, some not. Members didn't appear to be restricted from going in or out any of the doors they wanted, but many preferred to stay in their seats throughout the debate.

There were four spots on the floor that members spoke from, each of which had a container of disinfectant wipes, paper towels and hand sanitizer. Some members used the disinfectant wipes to clean the tabletop podiums beforehand, but many spoke as they normally would.

Lawmakers used their elbows or rear ends to push open the swinging doors to enter and exit the chamber. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, brought an aerosol can of Lysol disinfectant spray which he spritzed toward a colleague when they leaned in too close.

House doorkeepers propped open the doors to all the third floor galleries overlooking the House chamber, allowing lawmakers to practice social distancing by sitting in the balconies rather than crowding on the House floor.

Members were told to remain seated during the request for a recorded vote and the additional seating the galleries allowed them to spread out.

The more than 100 lawmakers in the galleries were united in their interest to stay away from one another, but threw out the partisan divides that usually govern seating on the floor. Overlooking the chamber, members mingled at a distance, Democrats and Republicans taking seats in the same sections and rows.

Lindsey McPherson, Katherine Tully-McManus, Jennifer Shutt and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.