Masks, gloves and staggered voting mark House debate in a time of pandemic

“Don’t stand there,” she yelled at DeLauro.

So began one of the strangest set of votes in congressional history. First, House leaders knew they had to pass a $484 billion emergency relief bill to help small businesses get desperately needed loans and extend another $100 billion into the health-care system for hospitals.

Second, they had to devise an intricate system that would allow nearly 400 lawmakers to trek to Washington despite health experts warning against nonessential travel for fear of further spreading the deadly coronavirus.

Some parts of the day looked like any other on Capitol Hill — a sparsely crowded House chamber as lawmakers debated in heated partisan tones.

But so much else looked different. There were many, many masks, and in some cases gloves. Sanitizing hand wipes were placed on every row. Signs on the chairs forbid lawmakers from sitting any closer than three seats apart.

Most lawmakers wore masks inside the chamber, although quite a few Republicans declined to wear them at all, a point of tension for some Democrats who want everyone to don some face covering.

When Pelosi spoke in the morning, she unfurled her scarf so she could speak clearly into the microphone. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), leading the GOP side of debate, thanked her for that example and encouraged most speakers to adhere to that practice, taking their mask off to speak and then returning it over their face.

And finally, after more than five hours of debate, came the procession.

Rather than the normal 15-minute vote — with several hundred lawmakers crammed into the chamber at once — House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) worked with GOP leaders to minimize the number of lawmakers on the floor.

Hoyer’s staff spent Monday and Tuesday doing walk-throughs of the House chamber, working with advice from the Office of Attending Physician, to delicately map out how best to separate the few dozen lawmakers who were on the floor during the debate.

Shortly after 3 p.m., as the first vote began, the initial wave of lawmakers were ushered onto the floor almost one at a time, from either side of the House floor. They were greeted by a staffer and two hand sanitizer stations.

Some wiped their hands, others reached into their pockets to pull out their voting card, sliding it into the electric slot and then pressing green (for yes) or red (for no).

There were eight waves arranged alphabetically — the first group ranging from the As to the middle of the Cs, and so on.

This being Congress, there was a ninth group, for those lawmakers who were late or could not figure out the system and missed their proper group for voting.

As the first vote began, a pair of Democratic staff set up near the aisle to serve as ushers to guide lawmakers to their exit. But Pelosi, standing in the back, eyeballed the situation and immediately waved her arms outward — ordering the aides to step further away from the aisle to create more distance from the lawmakers.

It marked the first time lawmakers cast a formally recorded vote since March 13, after which the House has been essentially shuttered aside from top-level negotiations on coronavirus rescue packages.

Democrats had hoped to approve a temporary rule change to allow proxy voting from afar during the pandemic. That would allow lawmakers who felt at risk because of their age or preexisting conditions to avoid traveling, as well as those who are caring for a sick relative and do not want to risk exposing them to the virus.

But that fell apart amid partisan sniping. Instead a bipartisan working group is negotiating how to have the House function.

The last time House members saw one another, March 27, they approved a sweeping $2 trillion collection of legislation that included a new program of loans backed by the Small Business Administration.

That vote also used a historic avenue to try to keep members safe, having about 100 of them occupy seats in the spacious public galleries above that have been closed to the general public since March 12, and then approved that bill on a resounding voice vote.

This time, with Republicans demanding a formal vote, Hoyer created the assembly-line approach, taking nearly 90 minutes to finish the first roll call, a party-line vote to create a select committee to oversee the more than $2.5 trillion already allocated to fight the virus.

And just before 5 p.m., a crew of staff bolted through the chamber wearing masks and neon orange gloves, using Lysol wipes to cleanse everything from the microphones to the banisters in the public gallery above. The next, and final vote, then started.

Just getting the lawmakers to Washington carried some risk, because many fear that by traveling back and forth they could become vectors of transmitting the disease.

Most found that the flights were nowhere close to half full, allowing them to steer clear of other passengers.

“There were more on my flight than I was expecting, probably about 40 — but that’s still on a plane that normally carries 160,” Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) said in an interview outside the Capitol.

Just past 3 o’clock, Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.) took the floor to denounce some hiccups in the new SBA program that, as chair of the House Small Business Committee, she helped draft last month.

Velazquez announced March 30 that she had covid-19 symptoms and her doctors told her to assume she had contracted the virus, just three days after standing directly behind Pelosi at a ceremony marking the passage of the $2 trillion legislation.

She self isolated for two weeks and returned Wednesday, starting with a hearing for lawmakers to discuss their district’s experience with the new Paycheck Protection Program, which had a troubling rollout. It remains in such demand that the new legislation pumped another $310 billion into it.

She then got to close out the floor debate.

Early in the first vote, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) walked onto the floor, wearing a mask and black gloves, his first trip back to Washington since he finished up a three-week quarantine after he tested positive March 15 for covid-19.

As he left the floor, he spotted a staffer he knew and flashed both thumbs up.

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