House approves $3 trillion Covid aid bill and historic rules change to allow remote voting
(CNN) -- The House of Representatives on Friday passed a sweeping bill to spend more than $3 trillion for Covid-19 relief and a rules change to allow lawmakers to vote remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.
The measure was approved by a vote of 208-199 despite opposition from Republicans as well as from some moderate and progressive Democrats. Fourteen Democrats crossed party lines to vote against it and one Republican voted in favor.
The legislation, which reflects Democratic priorities and was not a product of bipartisan negotiations, would stand as the largest relief package in US history and House Democratic leaders argued that the package, which allocates funding for state and local governments, coronavirus testing and a new round of direct payments to Americans, is urgently needed to address the crisis.
Republicans however have made clear that it is dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate. Democrats also had to grapple with criticism and pushback from moderates upset that the bill did not have widespread bipartisan support and progressives who believe the bill did not go far enough to help Americans facing fallout from the pandemic.
In a sign of how serious that pushback was, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi worked to lock in the support for the bill ahead of a final vote, with multiple sources involved in the vote-counting effort telling CNN that Pelosi worked hard behind-the-scenes to ensure she had the votes.
Asked ahead of the vote how hard she was working the vote, Pelosi told CNN on Friday, "like normal" and said she was "confident" the bill would pass.
Pelosi, a California Democrat, defended the bill on Thursday against attacks that it is partisan, saying, "We're putting our offer on the table. We're open to negotiation."
But most Republicans have dismissed the aid package as a liberal wish list. They have argued it is too soon to move ahead with another far-reaching legislative response to the pandemic without first waiting to see the results of the trillions of dollars in aid that have already been enacted.
Republicans also criticized the rules change proposal to allow remote voting and remote committee work as a partisan power grab that will upend institutional tradition. Democratic leaders say remote voting by proxy will ensure lawmakers can continue to legislate safely and effectively during the pandemic.
Democrats approved the rules change, which stands to significantly alter the way the House conducts legislative business, over Republican opposition with a vote of 217-189. The change will allow the chamber to operate remotely for the first time in its more than 200-year history.
House leaders pushed ahead with bill despite defections
A number of moderates came out in opposition to the $3 trlllion relief legislation ahead of the final vote, including vulnerable lawmakers in competitive battleground districts.
Freshman Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, Ben McAdams of Utah, Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Cindy Axne of Iowa, and Elaine Luria of Virginia all said ahead of the vote that they opposed it and indicated they plan to vote against it.
Democratic Rep. Haley Stevens, a freshman from a Michigan swing district who was the subject of an intense lobbying campaign, announced not long before the final vote that she would support the bill. She had been signaling to her leadership that she would vote against it, but had been lobbied all day, multiple sources told CNN.
The legislation also drew complaints from some progressive lawmakers.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, said on Friday that she would vote against the bill. She and a number of other progressives had been frustrated that their paycheck guarantee proposal was not included in the bill.
GOP Rep. Pete King also indicated ahead of the final vote that he would cross party lines and support the measure. The New York Republican planned to vote for the measure, his spokesman told CNN earlier in the week.
The legislation unveiled earlier this week also did not include recurring monthly payments, which some progressives had pushed for.
The legislation would provide nearly $1 trillion for state and local governments, a $200 billion fund for essential worker hazard pay, an additional $75 billion for Covid-19 testing, tracing and isolation efforts, and a new round of direct payments to Americans of up to $6,000 per household, according to the House Appropriations Committee.
States are facing major tax revenue shortfalls in the wake of the economic devastation, and deficits could total $650 billion over three years, according to an estimate from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. The budget gaps are forcing states to look at laying off workers and cutting funding for education, public colleges, health and human services, parks and recreation, and even public safety.
With the four previous coronavirus relief measures, House Democrats collaborated with Senate Republicans and the Trump administration to negotiate bipartisan agreements. But it remains unclear whether and when a bipartisan consensus can be reached on yet another package, despite the fact that the American public and US economy continue to feel the devastating impact of the disease.
How the remote voting rules change works
The rules change approved on Friday will authorize temporary implementation of remote voting by proxy in the event of a public health emergency due to the coronavirus. It also allows for remote committee proceedings during the pandemic.
Under the rules change, lawmakers who cannot or do not want to travel during the pandemic will be allowed to designate proxies by sending letters to the House clerk. Proxies will be required to "receive exact written instruction" from the members who are using them as proxies, according to the House Rules Committee.
Any given member can serve as a proxy only for up to 10 other lawmakers.
Once enacted, the authorization for remote voting and remote committee work will remain in place for a 45-day period, after which it could be extended if the public health emergency persists.
The resolution also greenlights higher-tech options for remote voting in the future after a system is developed and certified, directing the chair of the House Administration Committee to study the feasibility of using technology to vote remotely in the House. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, has suggested members could one day utilize technologies like FaceTime to call House clerks to cast their votes.
Members observed social distancing during Friday votes
As with prior House votes during the pandemic, lawmakers were asked to adhere to social distancing protocols during votes on Friday. Washington remains under a stay-at-home order, which was recently extended until June 8.
A notice sent to all members from the attending physician and sergeant-at-arms advised lawmakers to maintain 6 feet of social distance anytime they are in the Capitol. The use of face coverings is "strongly recommended" for members and staff during "any proceeding when it may be not possible to maintain" that amount of separation.
They also recommended that members avoid using elevators in the Capitol, which in normal circumstances become packed tight with lawmakers as members travel to and from the House floor for votes.
Voting was conducted in alphabetical groups of roughly 72 members each to minimize the number of people on the House floor at any given time. Members were also be asked to exit the chamber floor quickly after they vote, to avoid large congregations and to allow voting to proceed as quickly as possible.
This story has been updated to include additional reaction and background information Friday.
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