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The US House of Representatives rushed to reconvene on Friday morning for a vote on a historic $2.2tn stimulus package designed to prop up a US economy crippled by the spread of coronavirus.
Lawmakers will debate the measure for three hours before a vote on the House floor. The package includes one-off “helicopter money” cheques of up to $1,200 for individuals, an extra $600 a week in unemployment insurance for those without work and a $450bn bailout fund for US businesses, states and cities, among other provisions.
The bill, which passed the Republican-controlled Senate in a 96-0 vote earlier this week, is expected to be approved by the Democratic-controlled House, before being sent to President Donald Trump to be signed into law.
But the House vote may prove complicated. A handful of lawmakers have threatened to object to the bill, or force a “roll call” vote, which would require each member of Congress to appear on the House floor to vote. Before Friday, the House had been in recess for nearly two weeks amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus.
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, had originally planned to pass the bill by “unanimous consent”, which allows for swift approval so long as no member objects. Such a manoeuvre would have prevented lawmakers from having to rush back to Washington.
Two House members — Ben McAdams, a Democrat from Utah, and Mario Díaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida — have tested positive for Covid-19, while others have self-isolated at the advice of their doctors.
Many have also raised concerns that the US Capitol, where lawmakers and staffers spend long hours in close quarters, could be a hotspot for spreading the virus. A large share of lawmakers in both the House and Senate are over the age of 65, putting them at higher risk for severe illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After lawmakers from both parties raised issues with the bailout bill on Thursday, Ms Pelosi said a “voice vote”, where members shout “aye” or “nay”, would be held, allowing politicians to register discontent without forcing all 435 House members to return to Washington.
But Steny Hoyer, the Democratic House majority leader, advised members late on Thursday that “it is possible this measure will not pass by voice vote”, after Thomas Massie, a Republican from Kentucky, said he would vote against the bill and suggested he could demand a “roll call”, which requires a quorum of House members to be in the chamber.
Mr Hoyer said members should “follow the guidance of their state and local health officials” and return to Washington “with caution” if they were “able and willing”.
Democrats and Republicans alike voiced their disapproval as they scrambled to get back to Washington.
“Because of one Member of Congress refusing to allow emergency action entire Congress must be called back to vote in House,” Peter King, a Republican congressman from New York, said on Twitter. “Risk of infection and risk of legislation being delayed. Disgraceful. Irresponsible.”
Mr Trump also weighed in, calling Mr Massie a “third rate grandstander” and suggesting he be “thrown out” of the Republican party.
“He just wants the publicity,” Mr Trump said on Twitter on Friday morning. “He can’t stop it, only delay, which is both dangerous and costly. Workers and small businesses need money now in order to survive.”