WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives will vote on Thursday on a roughly $480 billion coronavirus relief package to deliver aid to small businesses and hospitals and expand Covid-19 testing, in the latest attempt by lawmakers to blunt the devastating impact of the pandemic.
The measure passed the Senate on Tuesday and will go to President Donald Trump for his signature after it is approved by the House. Trump has expressed support for the legislation and indicated that he will sign it.
Connecticut U.S. Rep. Jim Himes tweeted a photo of hand sanitizer and masks on a table outside the house chamber.
The total price tag of the bill is approximately $484 billion. It will add to the already historic levels of spending to deal with the pandemic by authorizing an additional $310 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, which was set up to help small businesses struggling from the economic deep freeze triggered by coronavirus. Funding for the program ran dry earlier this month, prompting an outcry from the business community.
In addition, the legislation provides $75 billion for hospitals and health care providers to address coronavirus expenses and lost revenue and $25 billion to facilitate and expand Covid-19 testing. The increased funding for testing comes at a time when there is widespread recognition that testing capacity must increase and improve as states consider when to reopen businesses and lift lockdowns.
The House is expected to hold a recorded roll call vote on the package, forcing many lawmakers to return to Washington from their home states and districts during the pandemic.
As a sign of the pandemic's effect on the chamber, voting will be altered to allow for more social distancing. The House will vote in groups starting Thursday afternoon and there could be cleaning in the chamber between votes. The Capitol physician and House sergeant-at-arms sent out recommendations to lawmakers and their staff, including to wear masks.
A number of lawmakers could be seen wearing masks on the House floor during debate ahead of the vote, but some members opted not to wear masks while speaking.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, wore a white face covering while sitting at the back of the chamber, but she removed it to speak on the floor, then wiped down the lectern after she spoke.
At one point, House Rules committee chair Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, looked over at the GOP side where a handful of members weren't wearing masks, and reminded the members that the Capitol physician's office recommended face coverings while on the chamber floor.
Still, a few members were spotted sitting on the House floor without wearing masks, including Republican Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Jody Hice of Georgia, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and Louie Gohmert of Texas who were all maskless for at least part of the time Thursday morning.
In the chamber, there are signs on the chairs where members are allowed to sit, ensuring they are spread out on the floor. The galleries are empty and remain closed to visitors.
Several lawmakers have contracted the virus since March and members have become increasingly reluctant to travel across the country to Washington, DC, for votes. But in recent days, some lawmakers, especially Republicans, have expressed unease with being away from Washington and have called for members to return to the Capitol to deal with legislative business.
A recorded vote
A recorded vote would stand in contrast to the way the House passed the the $2.2 trillion CARES Act -- the last major legislative package Congress took up -- which was approved under an expedited process often used for uncontroversial legislation.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Tuesday on a call with reporters that congressional leaders "are asking every member to return who can return, and we hope that that is a large number."
But not every member is expected. Some lawmakers, he said, are particularly vulnerable to the illness and others are caring for family members. Some are concerned about traveling to DC and then having to quarantine themselves away from their family for 14 days.
"We're not ordering members to come back, but we do expect sufficient members to come back so we can have a quorum," he said.
"We think it will pass with a bipartisan vote," Hoyer said of the relief measure.
House to vote on oversight panel Thursday
The House is also expected to vote on Thursday to set up a powerful new oversight committee with subpoena power to oversee the trillions of dollars of federal spending in response to the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Democratic-led committee, which Republicans have resisted because they say it would be redundant, is expected to have broad power to oversee the historic level of US spending to prop up the economy and combat the public health crisis.
As Congress has enacted far-reaching and sweeping relief measures, lawmakers have also raised concerns over accountability and transparency of how they will be enacted and have called for oversight of the implementation of the legislation.
In a letter to House Democrats explaining the decision to create the new committee, Pelosi wrote that "its purpose is to ensure that the over $2 trillion that Congress has dedicated to this battle -- and any additional funds Congress provides in future legislation -- are spent wisely and effectively."
The decision to vote Thursday to formally establish the committee was a shift in plans after lawmakers were initially not expected to hold the vote on Thursday and were instead expected to vote on a new rule to allow members to vote remotely during the pandemic.
Pelosi said on a call with Democrats on Wednesday that after speaking with McCarthy they are tasking a bipartisan group of House lawmakers to review remote voting, a Democratic leadership aide said.
What's next for coronavirus aid
Lawmakers from both parties, as well as Trump, are already looking ahead to the next steps the federal government can take in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The President outlined some of his upcoming priorities in a tweet earlier in the week signaling his support for the latest legislative package.
"After I sign this Bill, we will begin discussions on the next Legislative Initiative with fiscal relief ... to State/Local Governments for lost revenues from COVID 19, much needed Infrastructure Investments for Bridges, Tunnels, Broadband, Tax Incentives for Restaurants, Entertainment, Sports, and Payroll Tax Cuts to increase Economic Growth," Trump tweeted.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer predicted on Wednesday that there will be a "big, broad, bold COVID 4." He added that some of the Democratic priorities include funding for state and local governments, election reform, money for housing and the postal service.
It is unclear when a next legislative package could materialize, as well as what appetite there will be particularly among Republican lawmakers to continue to green-light such massive and historic levels of government spending.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cautioned on Wednesday that "it's time to begin to think about the amount of debt we're adding to our country and the future impact of that."
He predicted the Senate will not try to pass another rescue package by unanimous consent until the Senate is back in session with "full participation."
McConnell added he believes the Senate should be "a little more cautious" moving forward on funding.
"Let's see how things are working. We've never been here before. This is totally uncharted territory. We're looking how this is impacting all of our country on a day to day basis," he said.
This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.