House debates cononavirus response – wearing face masks

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The U.S. House returned to Washington on Thursday for the first time in a month to pass a nearly half-trillion-dollar coronavirus relief package, with lawmakers and staff taking unprecedented steps to govern safely in the midst of a pandemic.

The House session kicked off at 10 a.m. with a stunning visual of the deadliness of the novel coronavirus. Everyone on the dais was wearing a mask, including the clerk, staff members and the House chaplain.

"We are here today as Congress continues responding to the biggest public health and economic emergency this nation has seen in 100 years, the coronavirus pandemic," Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said in starting the debate.

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McGovern wore a printed New England Patriots mask on his face as he addressed the House and cited the need for protection.

"What started just weeks ago half a world away is having a devastating impact across our country," McGovern said. "No community has been spared. More than 855,000 cases have been confirmed. Nearly 48,000 lives lost as of the time we're meeting right now and more than 22 million initial unemployment claims filed in the past month."

The House had been under a prolonged recess as Americans remain under stay-home orders to stop the spread of COVID-19. The last time a majority of members had been to Washington was on March 27 to conduct a voice vote on the massive CARES Act aid package. Several lawmakers have gotten sick from the contagious virus.

The House is set to approve a bipartisan $484 billion package, known as phase 3.5 of the relief efforts, that will help small businesses, hospitals and expand testing. The measure passed the Senate Tuesday by a voice vote with a bare-bones crew of senators.

In the more contentious House, leaders advised as many members as possible to come back to D.C. for the vote.

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The House is also voting on the creation of a new controversial coronavirus crisis subcommittee that will oversee the spending of the massive amount of funds Congress has appropriated for the crisis. The committee would have subpoena power over the Trump administration.

Democrats say the committee is needed for transparency, accountability and to prevent abuses from big companies from getting government aid when other smaller, needier companies have not.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., would chair the new committee, which has fueled the GOP opposition, in part because he's a top ally of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

The GOP panned the committee as being political and redundant since other oversight measures and committees are in place.

"We shouldn't create a new committee that will divide us," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

"There's no question that the mission will be to prevent the reelection of President Donald Trump," said Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga.

The House debate kicked off Thursday under new guidelines from Capitol medical staff. Members were advised to observe social distancing measures in the chamber and on campus. Votes are to take place in alphabetical waves to avoid crowding on the House floor.

In a letter to all members and staff on Tuesday, Philip G. Kiko, the chief administrative officer, and Paul D. Irving, the sergeant at arms, said that the attending physician is advising everyone to use hand sanitizer upon entering and leaving offices or the House floor.

The physician also recommended members and staff to use face coverings in any proceeding when it may not be possible to maintain the minimum six-foot separation distance. The House began distributing hand sanitizer and masks to all member offices this week.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pulled her scarf down to her neck when she addressed the floor.

"This is really a very, very, very sad day," Pelosi said. "We come to the floor with nearly 50,000 deaths, a huge number of people impacted and the uncertainty of it all. We have to be very prayerful."

Pelosi wiped down the microphone when she was done speaking and the pulled up her scarf around her face.

House Session kicks off Thursday morning with everyone on the dais in masks.

House Session kicks off Thursday morning with everyone on the dais in masks.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., had been speaking earlier with a surgical mask over his face, but then marveled at Pelosi's effort to speak to the American people with the mask off.

"I want to follow her example," Cole said, removing his mask this time while at the microphone. "I think we should keep our mask on when we're doing our normal business but take them off for speaking. Thank you for setting that example, Madam Speaker."

Some members, like Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, wore surgical gloves along with their surgical masks on the House floor. Others sat in the House chamber without wearing any face covering at all, including Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas.

"We got to be careful about spreading fear," Gohmert said of the virus. "We can be concerned, but shouldn't be afraid."