March 26, 2020 / 8:12 PM / 6 days ago

Speak, then clean: U.S. House guidelines for coronavirus debate

WASHINGTON, March 26 (Reuters) - With several lawmakers already sick with the coronavirus and many under self-quarantine, members of the U.S. Congress will do their best not to spread the infection on Friday when they debate a $2.2 trillion relief package to combat the pandemic.

The House of Representatives plans to fast-track the mammoth legislation that passed unanimously in the Senate by approving it on a simple voice vote and sending it to President Donald Trump for his signature.

Before that happens, some lawmakers are expected to travel to Washington to register their views in person, causing officials in the U.S. Capitol to adopt special procedures to minimize the threat of infection.

"It will be a lively, wonderful debate," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters, as she predicted strong bipartisan House support for the measure.

Congress has considered whether to allow members to vote from outside the Capitol during the pandemic but thus far has not found a way to do that.

Extra care will be taken to protect the veteran House floor staffers who are the backbone of the chamber's legislative operation.

"The floor will look different," said House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who emphasized the need to clean up quickly after speeches. "As one person speaks, you're going to have to come back and clean," he said.

Lawmakers will not be able to sit next to each other or move around much as they are ushered in one door and out another to maintain their distance, McCarthy told reporters. Public health officials urge people to maintain about 6 feet (2 m) of distance between each other to reduce the spread of the highly contagious respiratory disease.

Lawmakers who would rather not come to Washington can record video statements for the C-SPAN nonprofit television network.

With five vacant seats, the Democratic-controlled House currently has 430 members, most of whom have been out of Washington since March 14. Two House members have been diagnosed with the coronavirus since then, as has one senator.

The bill is intended to shovel cash and liquidity to families and businesses at a time when the United States looks poised to become the epicenter of the global pandemic. The disease has sickened more than 73,000 people and killed more than 1,100 across the nation.

Lawmakers initially hoped the legislation would have strong enough backing to pass the House without debate or opposition, via a lighting-quick process known as unanimous consent.

But its sheer size gave some pause. House members across the political spectrum have since found provisions they oppose.

Reporting by David Morgan, Doina Chiacu and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney

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