WASHINGTON—Some U.S. House members from Texas rushed to the U.S. Capitol on March 27 and urgently passed into law a massive spending bill that is aimed toward mitigating the health and economic impact of the new coronavirus.
It was, for modern times, an unheard of member scramble from every corner of the country.
At issue was the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, a bill estimated to cost taxpayers over $2 trillion with the goals of reinforcing the medical response to the pandemic, keeping businesses afloat long enough to avoid more layoffs and bolstering liquidity in the market. The bill will direct payments to individual Americans and will deliver loans to distressed businesses affected by the virus outbreak: small businesses, large corporations and airlines.
The bill easily and unanimously passed the U.S. Senate late on March 25 with the support of U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both Republicans from Texas.
But senators were in Washington, while House members had recessed to their home districts almost two weeks ago. The aim for House leaders was to move the Senate bill—for which Speaker Nancy Pelosi was a negotiating partner—through the House through a procedural mechanism that would prevent members from having to possibly expose themselves and their constituents to the virus.
The instrument for such an extraordinary move was to call for a voice vote, a circumstance in which the presiding officer judges passage based on a handful of present members vocal ayes and nays.
That was not to be.
By the afternoon of March 26, a Republican congressman from Kentucky, U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, emerged as a point of concern for House leaders. They feared Massie would attend the vote and call for a recorded vote. To counter the move, a quorum of 216 members would be needed.
Then came guidance from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's office: "Members are encouraged to follow the guidance of their local and state health officials, however if they are able and willing to be in Washington D.C. by 10:00 a.m. tomorrow, Members are encouraged to do so with caution."
And so, House members traveled across the country by trains, planes and automobiles and arrived to Washington early on March 27 to begin debate on the bill.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, a Republican from The Woodlands, managed the schedule for Republicans to debate the bill. But there was little contention with the Democrats on the other side of the aisle. Nearly all of the members who made the trip to Washington did so because of their intent to pass the CARES Act.
Even so, Republicans and Democrats shared a refrain: "The bill is not perfect." But over and over, members declared that circumstances demanded compromise.
"The Greek physician, Hypocrites, once said, ‘For extreme diseases, extreme methods of cure are most suitable,’ and while this medicine will have some short-term adverse side effects, it is our best hope for curing the crisis,” said U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock.
"[Americans] want to know that we will not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good," concurred U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston. "This is not a perfect bill. It is a good bill. I will support it. The American people need certainty. They want to know we will be there for them."
Republican U.S. Reps. Bill Flores of Bryan, Louie Gohmert of Tyler, Michael Burgess of Lewisville, and Democratic U.S. Reps. Colin Allred of Dallas and Sylvia R. Garcia, Al Green and Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston also delivered remarks from the floor.
As members made their speeches from the chamber on March 27, President Donald Trump directed his ire at Massie. Tweeting that the congressman is "a third rate Grandstander," the president called to "throw Massie out of Republican Party!"
U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, an Austin Republican, jumped onto social media to defend Massie.
"@RepThomasMassie is one of the most principled men in Congress & loves his country. He is defending the Constitution today by requiring a quorum. There’s nothing 3rd rate about that, @realDonaldTrump," Roy wrote. "I may miss vote if he forces roll call (flights) but it will pass. Back off."
Not all Texans made it to the Capitol on such short notice. Roy tweeted that he had trouble booking a flight. Other members had health concerns. U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a freshman Democrat from Houston, spent the day in a self-quarantine from her home. She announced on March 26 that she is suffering from a fever and flu-like symptoms and awaits the results of a coronavirus test.
Members listened to the debate while seated spaced out throughout the chamber, with some taking seats in the public gallery. The House attending physician warned members to maintain "a 6-foot social distance spacing as much as practicable when in the offices or the Capitol." He further encouraged members to use the stairs and avoid elevators. When using elevators, the physician urged a maximum occupancy of two members.
Some members spoke while wearing blue latex gloves. Others doused their hands with hand sanitizer. Other members brought Lysol to the floor.
Should a formal vote have been needed, members would have voted in groups of 16, with alphabetical order determining the group order.
The Washington Post reported that senior Capitol Hill aides paced the chamber counting members present, ensuring that a quorum of 216 members was present.
The presiding officer, U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown, a Democrat from Maryland, called the voice vote. Most present voted in the affirmative, with a smattering of nays.
Then Massie took to the podium.
"I came here to make sure our republic doesn't die by unanimous consent and an empty chamber, and I request a recorded vote," he said.
Brown instructed members to rise if they supported a recorded vote and then stated there was an insufficient number of members supporting such a measure.
Trump is expected to sign the bill into law.
Brady, who also serves as the top Republican on the House tax writing committee, closed the Republican side of debate on the bill.
"When the chips are down, Congress can come together with our president to help hardworking families and businesses when they need it most," he said.
"This is the challenge of a lifetime," he later added. "But if we keep pulling together, we pass this bill today without delay, we take another step toward that day when we answer door and fear is no longer there."