Irate House lawmakers scramble back to D.C. amid fears of coronavirus vote delay

By Heather Caygle, Sarah Ferris and Melanie Zanona

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team are determined to clear a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package on Friday, making contingency plans in case a lawmaker on either side tries to delay the vote.

But the move has infuriated many rank-and-file lawmakers, who spent Thursday afternoon and evening scrambling to try to find flights to Washington so they could be present for a potential roll call vote. Lawmakers were previously told they would have at least 24 hours’ notice if they needed to return, but that turned out not to be the case.

House leaders are hoping to quickly pass the relief package via voice vote — allowing members who chose to come to the chamber to debate and verbalize their objections without requesting a roll call vote.

But a single member could object on the grounds that there isn’t a quorum — in this case, 216 lawmakers — in the chamber. A lawmaker could also demand a roll call vote, something leaders in both parties are urging against but warned might happen in notices sent to members late Thursday.

The confusion started in earnest during a private Democratic Caucus call on Thursday afternoon. Pelosi said the House would vote the next day even if a lawmaker forced a roll call vote.

“If we have a quorum tomorrow, we will take a vote tomorrow,” Pelosi said, according to multiple Democrats on the call. “The American people want certainty. We need to get this bill passed tomorrow.”

“We have to get people off their selfishness,” Pelosi added, speaking about Republican threats to demand a roll call vote instead of letting the House clear the package via a simple voice vote.

But Pelosi’s remarks set off a round of head scratching and panic because all previous guidance that members had been given — including earlier on that very call — was that they would have at least 24 hours’ notice to return to the Capitol.

Pelosi’s decision to move forward with the vote on Friday, no matter what, comes as House leaders on both sides worry that one or more of their members will try to cause a scene, demanding a quorum call or a roll call vote, which would require more lawmakers to return to the Capitol.

But House Republican leadership is particularly concerned about the intentions of Rep. Tom Massie (R-Ky.), who drove from his home state to be in Washington for the vote, and has signaled to leadership that he might call for a recorded tally. The White House is aware of the issue, sources said.

Both House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) have been in contact with Massie, according to a Republican leadership aide — but no one is quite sure where he will land.

The speaker’s declaration that an in-person vote could happen on Friday — instead of Saturday, as expected — caught many members off guard, and sent them scrambling to return to Washington earlier than expected. For some, that meant trying to find flights at a time when national airlines have dramatically reduced their service.

And for many lawmakers, there is deep anxiety about returning to the Capitol, which they see as a hotbed for potentially spreading the virus. Many fear it could spread not only on the floor during votes, but also with hundreds of lawmakers en route to Washington on planes and trains.

Pelosi’s staff reaffirmed the plans on a 6 p.m. call with senior aides, advising that any members who were coming back to D.C. should plan to be there by mid-morning on Friday, according to people familiar with the call.

Initially, just a sliver of the Democratic Caucus was expected to return. But now many members are trying to rush back, afraid of not being recorded if there is a roll call vote. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) sent out a notice on Thursday night, asking to know “as soon as possible” who was willing and able to make it to the Capitol on Friday.

Many members were privately furious about the apparent change in plan, with some blaming Pelosi and others pointing fingers at Massie.

McCarthy had been making the pitch to his members — in news conferences, conference calls and individual conversations — to not object to the voice vote on Friday. His argument: that the process will still allow for a debate and a chance to express opposition, without having to drag everyone back to Washington and slow down the bill’s passage.

As of late Thursday night, Massie remained a wild card, with senior aides in both parties saying they weren’t sure what he would do the next day. Earlier Thursday, Massie signaled that he was still wrestling with his decision. “They’re trying to convince us it should be a voice vote, it shouldn’t be recorded. And I’m struggling with this,” he said. “I’m having a real hard time with this.”

In addition to potential GOP disruptions, Pelosi said on the caucus call that there was one Democratic member who might demand a roll call vote on the massive package, though she did not name the lawmaker.

For some Democrats, the main point of contention involves the massive $150 billion rescue fund for state and local governments as they try to combat the crisis on the ground. That money can be awarded only to localities of more than 500,000 people — a major concern for lawmakers whose districts may not qualify for aid.

The $2 trillion-plus package, which has already been approved by the Senate, will provide immediate relief to workers, small businesses and major industries crippled by the crisis.

Hoping to head off this scramble, Pelosi strongly urged Democrats not to demand a roll call vote early on during the Thursday call, telling her caucus it would be “selfish” to require their colleagues to fly and drive in from across the country, potentially putting everyone’s health at risk.

Some rank-and-file Democrats — Reps. Dan Kildee of Michigan and Gerry Connolly of Virginia — also tried during the call to plead with their colleagues not to request a recorded vote during the time of national crisis. Instead, they urged, any lawmakers upset with the legislation should voice their objection through the congressional record.

Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) said it was irresponsible for lawmakers to get on planes, and called for remote voting. Peters was among nearly 70 House Democrats who sent a letter this week, urging their leadership to consider remote voting.

Still, the sergeant-at-arms and the Capitol physician have prepared for a potential surge of lawmakers to attend votes on Friday, and Saturday if needed.

Members received a sternly worded email on Thursday that included nearly a dozen new restrictions — from elevator usage to the speaker’s lobby — in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus.

Lawmakers will vote in pre-assigned groups of 30 to limit contact on the floor, and will be required to use hand sanitizer before and after leaving the chamber. Ahead of the vote, the chamber will be limited to members who are scheduled to speak.

On their way to votes, lawmakers are asked to ride with no more than one other person in an elevator, and most staff will be barred from the Capitol building itself.

But not every lawmaker will be present Friday. Several House members remain quarantined, including three — Reps. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) — who say they developed symptoms in recent days.

And Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) — who, along with Rep. Mario Diaz Balart (R-Fla.) has tested positive for the virus — remains hospitalized as he battles the illness.

Jake Sherman contributed to this report.