WASHINGTON - House leaders sought to expedite the emergency $2 trillion relief bill aimed at mitigating the financial havoc caused by the coronavirus pandemic amid uncertainty about whether a renegade lawmaker could delay sending the measure to President Donald Trump.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., agreed to approve the measure with a voice vote Friday that would not require all 430 current members of the House to travel to the Capitol, given that two lawmakers have contracted the disease and others are self-quarantining due to exposure to confirmed carriers.
The leadership also is taking meticulous steps to change the protocol for debate and voting to ensure the safety of lawmakers.
But at least one lawmaker is considering upending the plans for swift passage. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said Thursday that he opposed the bill, approved unanimously by the Senate on Wednesday, as it would add to the national debt. The libertarian lawmaker also is concerned that voting without a quorum present - the majority of the House chamber - would violate the Constitution. He said he has yet to decide whether to press the issue, which could delay a House vote until late Saturday or Sunday.
At the White House on Thursday, Trump acknowledged that one House member could slow the process.
"You might have one grandstander and for that we'll have to come back and take a little more time and it'll pass, it'll just take a little longer. But let's see whether or not we have a grandstander," Trump said.
The planned vote Friday will culminate nearly two weeks of often heated debate about how to structure a sweeping bill that is attempting to provide hospitals and the health industry the tools to arrest the escalating spread of the virus and to shore up an economy that has gone into a free fall.
The Labor Department reported Thursday that unemployment claims topped 3.3 million just last week in another blow to the economy.
The sprawling legislation would send checks to more than 150 million American households, set up enormous loan programs for businesses large and small, pump billions of dollars into unemployment insurance programs, greatly boost spending on hospitals and much more. Trump, just before 1 a.m. Thursday, joyfully tweeted about the Senate vote, part of his effort to get the legislation to his desk as fast as possible.
Massie traveled from his Kentucky home to Washington on Wednesday in anticipation of the final vote.
"What the American people should ask is not, why is one guy asking for everybody to follow the Constitution, but why can't these other people who are getting paid $174,000 make the same trip that the truckers are making that are bringing the food to the grocery stores?" he asked.
Pelosi said she was ready to defeat such an effort.
"I feel certain that we will have a strong bipartisan vote," she said at a news conference Thursday morning.
She did not address the specific issue raised by Massie but said she is prepared to deal with any member who objects to moving forward with a voice vote - as he and some others have suggested they might.
At a subsequent news conference, McCarthy said he thinks a voice vote on the bill will be sufficient. "I do not think there's a need for anything else," he said.
He noted that there will be time for debate on the House floor and those members that come to the House can make their views known.
McCarthy described several precautions that would be taken during Friday's debate, including wiping microphones after each speaker and ensuring House members do not congregate closely. Members are also being encouraged to submit arguments via video so that they do not have to be in the Capitol, and in a rare step, C-SPAN has offered to air those statements to create a virtual debate.
Only lawmakers who are overseeing the debate and those directly scheduled to speak will be permitted into the House chamber during the debate, according to a memo issued by the House Sergeant-at-Arms. Elevator rides are limited to two people.
The situation is so fluid some lawmakers do not know whether they should attend Friday's proceedings.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has already returned to Washington, at a moment when federal health experts have suggested anyone in the New York region self-quarantine for two weeks because the area has been the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak.
In a brief interview Thursday, she said she is asking for guidance about whether she can participate in the debate or just submit a video statement.
A rising star among liberal activists, Ocasio-Cortez has been considering voting against the legislation. She carried out her own internal debate Thursday through her Twitter account, both criticizing Republicans for "holding hostage" hospitals and workers in exchange for a corporate bailout - but also praising nearly $1 trillion in funds.
A Thursday afternoon conference call hosted for House Democrats in anticipation of the vote ended in confusion, according to four people who participated and spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private call.
All four cited a conflict between the guidance offered by Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. Both said they hoped to clear the coronavirus rescue bill Friday morning by voice vote, but they offered different messages on whether members should try to attend.
Hoyer, they said, said that if Massie or some other lawmaker forced a recorded vote, that would push deliberations to Saturday and there would be no need for any member to come to Washington on Friday unless they wanted to speak on the bill.
But Pelosi, toward the end of the call, suggested that members who could travel to Washington should do so, in hopes of resolving any possible issue Friday.
Regardless of any Democratic opposition, Pelosi made clear that no one on her side of the aisle would go the extra step and force a roll-call vote to delay the passage of legislation that is certain to pass on a strong bipartisan vote.
She also began to spell what she wants to see in the fourth major piece of legislation dealing with coronavirus, including more help for New York and other states hit hard by the outbreak. Pelosi also wants job safety provisions in the next legislation to protect those workers who are still going to offices, manufacturing sites and hospitals, potentially endangering themselves to contracting the virus.
But McCarthy, reflecting the reservations of a GOP caucus that used to preach fiscal discipline, was cool to the idea of Congress tackling another bill in a matter of weeks.
"Let's let this bill work," he said, before considering next steps.
Pelosi indicated that any future effort would involve all four leaders in Congress. She intends to hunker down in Washington to work on the next steps, rather than heading back to her home in San Francisco, even though the House is not expected to be in session for weeks to come.
“I’ll be working most of it from here,” she told reporters.