Planes, pains and automobiles: How half the House made it to the stimulus vote

Many members spent less time in House than it took them to travel to Washington

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., runs to get to the House floor to vote on the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act as Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, steps off the subway with his wife, Anne Garland Walton, at the Capitol on March 27, 2020.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., runs to get to the House floor to vote on the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act as Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, steps off the subway with his wife, Anne Garland Walton, at the Capitol on March 27, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 27, 2020 at 6:45pm

Red-eye flights. Eight-hour-plus drives. Whatever it took, more than 216 House members traveled to Washington to ensure there would be a quorum for Friday’s vote on a $2.3 trillion stimulus package to combat the coronavirus and its impacts on the economy.

Most of the members made last-minute arrangements to get to the Capitol after leadership warned them late Thursday that their plans for a quick voice vote were likely to be objected to by Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie. 

“What I said from the start of all this is I will come back if needed. If I’m not needed, I won’t,” Illinois Democrat Cheri Bustos told CQ Roll Call. “And obviously we needed to make sure we had a quorum, and because of one guy who made a decision to disrupt things that were working pretty smoothly, both on the Republican and the Democratic side.”

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Massie did indeed try to force a recorded vote on the bill Friday, but members’ efforts to get to Washington proved successful in blocking him. 

As debate wrapped and the vote approached, leadership had members gather on the floor and in the galleries overlooking it so they could maintain social distancing.

After a voice vote was called, Massie requested a recorded vote, but it was not supported by one-fifth of the members present, as required under the rules. He then suggested the absence of a quorum but was overruled by Rep. Anthony G. Brown, the speaker pro tem, who noted there was a quorum and gaveled the vote down, ensuring passage.

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For many members, the time spent in the chamber Friday was likely less than it had taken for them to travel to Washington.

Bustos, who chairs House Democrats’ campaign arm and is used to frequent travel, arrived in Washington at 10:30 p.m. Thursday and was planning to take a 5 p.m. flight home. There were no flights available from her home airport that would’ve gotten her to Washington in time for the vote, so she went to a bigger hub.

“I had to drive to Chicago, which is typically, interestingly enough, typically a three- to three-and-a-half-hour drive from where I live in Moline, Illinois,” Bustos said. “It took us just a little over two hours. And that was driving the speed limit.” 

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New York City risk-takers

Several Democrats who represent parts of New York City were present for the vote, despite guidelines that suggest anyone leaving that area, which has been a hot spot for spread of the coronavirus, self-quarantine for 14 days. CQ Roll Call spotted Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Hakeem Jeffries, Adriano Espaillat, Nydia M. Velázquez, Yvette D. Clarke, Gregory W. Meeks and Grace Meng.

Ocasio-Cortez told CQ Roll Call she drove to Washington on Wednesday because she wanted to be here in case there was any sudden movement on the bill. She said other than to come to the Capitol for the vote, she’d been self-quarantining as the guidance suggests. 

“I was definitely quarantining in New York,” she said, noting as she walked away from the Capitol after the vote that she was going back to her apartment to continue self-quarantining. “But also there’s no remote voting provisions. Someone has to legislate, and I feel like I needed to be here.” 

Ocasio-Cortez is among dozens of members who’ve called on leadership to consider options that would allow lawmakers to vote from outside of Washington during the pandemic, like remote voting or proxy voting.

Others who had been reluctant to go that route said their experience scrambling to travel for Friday’s vote reinforced the need for a discussion of alternative options to take place.

“I’m one of those that I still want to do my work in person, but I think we ought to at least explore them,” Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar said. “I don’t think I’m ready to move that direction yet, but I’m ready to explore the possibilities.”

As members left Washington to head home, some understood they needed to be careful about their interactions back home after traveling and congregating around so many people.

Ohio Republican Rep. Warren Davidson debated the risks between driving and flying to Washington but opted for the latter.

“When I look at the risk profile and everything else, the big thing is what will I do on the back end,” he said. “Well, I’ll limit my exposure to other people, and in particular limit my exposure to people like my parents who are older, with underlying health conditions.” 

While members described the need to be cautious while traveling, few seemed concerned about harm to their own health.

“Look, I’ve had stage 4 cancer and I’ve had a major heart attack. I’m here for a reason,” Rep. Ken Buck said. The Colorado Republican, who opposed the bill, said it’s important for members to be present to be on record about their views on legislation for their constituents. 

Texas GOP Rep. Ron Wright, who has stage 4 lung cancer, was among the members who made the trip to Washington.

After the vote Friday, two House members who did not travel to Washington, South Carolina Democrat Joe Cunningham and Pennsylvania Republican Mike Kelly, announced they'd tested positive for the coronavirus. The total number of lawmakers who’ve announced a positive test result is now five.

Empty airports and planes

On his flight to Washington, Warren said the airport was the emptiest he’s ever seen it. 

“I've been on flights with fewer people, but rarely,” he said. “There were only five people on my flight, and only three of us were paying customers. One was another member of Congress.”

The other member on Davidson’s flight was fellow Ohio Republican Michael R. Turner. Several other members also shared planes — seemingly mostly to themselves. 

Colorado Democrats Ed Perlmutter and Joe Neguse took a Southwest flight to BWI that arrived at 3 a.m. Friday and had more passengers than some other members’ flights. 

“There were about 20, 25 people on it,” Perlmutter said, noting it was more than he expected. “Usually it’s 130 people, but it had a few people on it. The airport was empty, that’s for sure.”

Buck, who flew in Monday because he had planned to be at the vote regardless of whether it was by voice or roll call, said he’s seen more people at the supermarket than he saw at the airport. 

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio took a cross-country flight Thursday night from his home state of Oregon. 

“Alaska Airlines flew with four or five flight attendants, four passengers,” he said. “To the ground crew and everybody else: Thank you for getting us here. Thank you for getting us home safe.”

As the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, DeFazio said he hopes the aviation industry, which got billions in aid as part of the bill that the House passed Friday, will start providing minimal service to every city and not fly planes unnecessarily or put crews and flight attendants at unnecessary risk of the coronavirus.

How to get home?

The airlines are canceling many flights, and some members said they had trouble getting to Washington because of that. 

“I was trying to leave yesterday, but flights were canceled from Laredo. It’s a small airport. I left at 6 o’clock this morning, got here about 12:30,” Cuellar said, noting he was on his way back to the airport to fly home.

North Dakota Republican Kelly Armstrong noted he’d had multiple flights canceled on him as he wondered when he’d actually get out of Washington. He has a flight home booked for Saturday.

Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who’s been at the Capitol for several days, wasn’t yet sure how he would be getting home to California after Friday’s vote. 

“Hopefully I’m flying, or I guess I’m driving cross country,” he told CQ Roll Call. 

When asked if he’d drive solo or bring colleagues along for the ride, he said he was game for a road trip. 

“If I drive, yeah, I’ll drop them off along the way. That’d be an interesting trip,” he said. “America’s beautiful.”