/House Ponders How to Pass Stimulus Without Spreading Coronavirus

House Ponders How to Pass Stimulus Without Spreading Coronavirus


WASHINGTON—House leaders are working on a plan to pass the largest stimulus package ever moved through Congress without convening the full 435-member body, in an effort to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus and sickening more members.

The House is expected to consider the bill on Friday, giving lawmakers time to review the $2 trillion legislation and return to Washington. Congress’s attending physician has cautioned members to use extreme care and deliberation when deciding whether to travel.

The bill, which passed the Senate late Wednesday, is the largest economic-relief package in history and will extend aid to many struggling Americans through direct payments and expanded unemployment insurance, which also cover freelance and gig workers. It will give loans and grants to businesses, refill drained state coffers and send additional resources to sapped health-care providers.

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The risk of contagion has prompted Congress to examine its own voting and social practices, which often put members in physical proximity. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) plans to hold a voice vote on the legislation on Friday, which won’t require all members to be present. Both Mrs. Pelosi and President Trump said they expected the measure to be easily approved.

“It will pass,” she said Thursday. “It will pass with strong bipartisan support.”

Mr. Trump credited the stimulus package for a surge in U.S. stocks this week, saying economic uncertainty remained in the U.S. “but we’ve come a long way.”

“We’re doing a really good job in terms of running this whole situation having to do with the virus,” Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House, he and his administration were “doing a good job keeping very important people informed.”

“There was a great fear,” Mr. Trump said. “And a lot of good things are happening.”

The office of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) sent a message to lawmakers Thursday encouraging those who won’t be in Washington to record video statements so they can express their views remotely. The statements will be shared on social media and on C-Span.

House Sergeant at Arms Paul D. Irving and Brian Monahan, Congress’s attending physician, on Thursday directed lawmakers who aren’t involved in the floor debate to stay in their offices until the vote is called. They will be required to use hand sanitizer when entering and departing the chamber. Lawmakers were also cautioned against using elevators and told that no guests would be allowed.

The Senate passed the legislation unanimously, 96-0, late Wednesday night. Four Republican senators were out due to illness or exposure to coronavirus, showing how lawmakers are being affected by the pandemic even as they pass legislation to combat it.

Two House members have also tested positive for the virus, and at least two others are awaiting results of Covid-19 tests after falling ill. Many lawmakers are in self-quarantine, either after experiencing symptoms themselves or because of known exposure to someone who was sick.

One of those members, Rep. Ben McAdams, has been reliant on oxygen support for his recovery. In a text-message interview from the hospital, the Utah Democrat urged his colleagues from both parties to support the legislation, while also counseling lawmakers to use caution.

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“It’s insensitive to use any ploy that will delay passage of the bill for people who need it,” he said. “Members of Congress should not take risks of catching this and spreading it; that will undercut our ability to continue responding to this very real crisis.”

Under these circumstances, the House is likely to pass the legislation by a voice vote, a procedure in which members call out “aye” or “no.” That option allows those who are present to register dissent on the floor but doesn’t record how a lawmaker voted, allowing for more absences.

A voice vote would put all lawmakers who want to be present on the floor at once, violating Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to limit group gatherings to 10 people if more than this number of House members and staff are present.

Mr. Irving’s and Dr. Monahan’s memo said they would monitor social-distancing practices during the gathering. Should a roll-call vote be called for, the lawmakers will vote in groups of 30, by alphabetical order, they wrote.

Several lawmakers are expected to make the trip. Democratic Rep. Haley Stevens of Michigan drove to Washington this week with her boyfriend and two dogs, Terra and Hydra, so she could represent the freshman class in the floor debate about the bill. Several other Democratic aides said lawmakers were still debating traveling to Washington.

A number of Republicans who opposed the last spending bill are planning to return.

Rep. Jody Hice (R., Ga.) said he plans to “go to the airport and check in and fly up there.”

Rep. Ben McAdams, who has been hospitalized and needed oxygen support since this February event, urged colleagues from both parties to support the legislation.



Photo:

Michael Brochstein/Zuma Press

“I would like to see all those who can and are healthy to come back,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R., Texas), who is already in Washington and reviewing the bill with staff.

If leaders hold a voice vote, any member can push for a recorded vote, delaying the process. The House has looked at alternative means of voting, such as by proxy, in which a House lawmaker can designate another member to vote on his or her behalf. That procedure would require an official rules change and isn’t expected to be undertaken.

“If somebody calls for a recorded vote, we have options,” Mrs. Pelosi told reporters.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy encouraged House lawmakers to permit a voice vote. “Hopefully, through this, we’ll learn to wash our hands more,” the California Republican said about how he thinks the virus might change long-term behaviors in the Capitol.

Once the bill is passed and signed by the president, lawmakers are expected to depart Washington for a lengthy period. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) set the next vote in the Senate for April 20. The date of the House’s return will be determined after the stimulus vote.

Still, lawmakers are already discussing what could be needed in a subsequent economic-relief package—which would be the fourth to address the health crisis. Mrs. Pelosi said she wanted to see worker-safety protections added, and for those who become sick from the virus to get free health care.

“There are a number of issues that we are not holding up this bill to do, but that we need to do,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “And we’re probably going to need more money.”

Write to Natalie Andrews at Natalie.Andrews@wsj.com

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