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US lawmakers wear masks to vote on stimulus bill

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Washington (AFP)

Donning masks and keeping an unaccustomed distance from each other, lawmakers of the US House of Representatives convened Thursday to vote on another half-trillion dollars to prop up the virus-battered US economy.

More than 200 representatives were expected to attend the session after weeks away from Washington, returning to earmark fresh funds for devastated small businesses, overwhelmed hospitals, and a ramp-up of testing nationwide during the pandemic.

The $480 billion bill was passed by the Senate on Tuesday, and President Donald Trump has made clear he is ready to sign off on it.

"I urge the House to pass the bill, and they'll be voting on it, I imagine, very soon," Trump said Tuesday.

Rather than crowd the chamber for speeches and comments, the lawmakers were allowed in a handful at a time to speak before the vote. The others were instructed to wait in their offices and view the action on television until summoned to vote.

When a vote comes, the legislators will only be permitted to enter the chamber a few at a time. Normally they cluster and chat freely in the chamber as votes are tallied.

"Members should use extreme care and deliberation when making the determination to travel to Washington," the House sergeant at arms advised.

House Democratic leaders expected more than 215 of the 435 members to attend, ensuring a quorum to put the bill through.

They are expected to vote first on a bill to create a committee to investigate the government's response to the epidemic in the United States.

Then the chamber will undergo a 30 minute sterilization before members move on to a vote on the stimulus bill.

The job-saving measure, which passed the Senate by unanimous consent after more than a week of negotiations between Democrats, Republicans and the White House, is the government's latest massive cash infusion to prop up a collapsing economy.

The latest tranche would include $320 billion in small business funding, plus $75 billion for hospitals and $25 billion to expand coronavirus testing.

It also provides $60 billion in disaster recovery loans and grants.

The COVID-19 outbreak has killed nearly 47,000 Americans and left some 26 million people jobless.

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