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Keeping your distance no problem in House virus debate

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., accompanied by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., and other legislators, participate in a bill enrollment ceremony for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, after it passed in the House, on Capitol Hill, Friday, March 27, 2020 in Washington. The $2.2 trillion package will head to Trump's desk for his signature. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON – They sprayed. They wiped. At least two donned gloves.

Politicians love to promise to clean house in Washington. For a change Friday, they followed through when the actual U.S. House of Representatives confronted the coronavirus outbreak with the biggest stimulus bill in history. The vigilance fit the perilous moment for humanity, as well as the specific threat to people over 60 who control the nation's legislature.

But it also produced some discomfort as avowed partisan warriors worked together. The six-foot rule seemed fine with them, for several reasons.

For one, social distancing helps prevent the spread of the deadly virus. It also lowers the risk of appearing too close to a politically toxic opponent and a $2.2 trillion spending bill.

It's still an election year, after all.

“I can't go that far,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy demurred with a grin after Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited him to pose next to her and the legislation. The leaders, surrounded by others, posed six feet apart for photos. Pelosi held the legislation.

Off-camera, the House's deliberations produced some extraordinary visuals. Before the debate began, Pelosi glanced at the gathering Republicans and gestured with her hands for them to stand further apart to chat.

Later, roughly 90 House members of both parties did more than cross the aisle to ensure the bill passed. They sat above it, in every other seat or so throughout the drafty visitors gallery that has sat empty since tours were canceled March 12.

Their numbers helped surmount a challenge to the bill by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., the only member of Congress willing to stall, if not block, the historic legislation. Throughout the day, Massie appeared to ask for speaking time. He was granted none. At one point, he and McCarthy walked across the chamber to talk with Pelosi. But she did most of the talking.

“We just said to him, ... 'Why don't you just back off?'" Pelosi said later.

He didn't. In a series of tweets, Massie said the bill was "stuffed full" of sweeteners added by Democrats. He tried — and failed — to force a person-by-person roll call, “to make sure our republic doesn't die by unanimous consent.”

President Donald Trump urged voters to throw Massie out of office.

Massie's move so outraged Washington that it brought Trump and former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, secretary of state under President Barack Obama, together.

On Twitter, Kerry used a vulgarity to describe Massie and said, “He must be quarantined to prevent the spread of his massive stupidity.” Kerry added, ”Finally, something the president and I can agree on!”

Otherwise united, House members spent the day together, yet apart, in the 162-year-old chamber. No one sat shoulder-to-shoulder, though a few members occasionally stood elbow-to-elbow to chat in the back.

At one point, the sound of prevention hissed through the room. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas pulled a large can of disinfectant from his bag, aimed and fired. He sprayed the microphone into which he had just spoken. Then the lectern beneath it and the table on which it stood. Next, the seat behind him, its arms — and with a final swoosh, the air all around.

The spray was a showy, if unnecessary, tool. Hand sanitizing stations stood at the top of every aisle. And cans of wipes with electric green tops were perched in seats behind the speakers' and managers' tables.

Most speakers wiped down the microphones and lecterns before and after speaking. Pelosi raised a hand, palm out, whenever anyone came near. That included her aides — even as she asked and they answered questions.

Others went further. Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., entered and exited the chamber wearing off-white gloves, peeling them off after she sat down during the speeches. She did not wear them for her own address, choosing the wipes instead.

Rep. Haley Stevens wore gloves — pink ones — on-camera. The generally mild-mannered freshman Democrat from Michigan appeared to have driven all night to get to Washington, tweeting from her car at 12:30 a.m. that she was “somewhere in Ohio.”

At the lectern, she held up hands and continued speaking when Republicans shouted that her time had expired. Addressing doctors and nurses, she yelled: “You will see darkness! You will be pushed! Our society needs you to stand together at this difficult time! Our country loves you!”

When the leaders cut her off, Stevens stepped away from the lectern. She put down her speech, said, “I yield,” and peeled off her gloves.

Then she took sat in a seat on the aisle, next to Pelosi.

The speaker, who celebrated her 80th birthday this week, smiled and moved one seat farther away.


Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this story.


Follow Kellman on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/APLaurieKellman