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Inside one lawmaker's risky trip to DC amid the coronavirus pandemic

Rep. Al Green personally filed bills rather than risk exposing aide to COVID-19.

With more than a dozen members of Congress in self-quarantine and two other representatives recovering after positive tests for the novel coronavirus, Rep. Al Green flew back to the nation's capital late Monday evening to introduce three bills he hopes will become part of the congressional response to the crisis.

His trip comes amid growing apprehension among the rank and file about traveling back to Washington to vote on sweeping legislation to respond to the pandemic.

For Green, an eight-term Democrat from Houston who has represented the 9th congressional district of Texas since 2005, this trip was unlike any other.

"If I told you the whole story, you wouldn’t believe it," Green told ABC News in an exclusive interview on Tuesday afternoon, explaining that with his hometown under a stay-home/work-safe order, he decided to make the 24-hour trip to Washington to file his legislation personally, rather than call on an aide to do it and risk exposing them to the virus.

"The risk I would take, I do not impose on my staff," he said. "There’s consternation of going to the Capitol. Staffers and members are currently quarantined and some are receiving medical attention. There’s a lot of consternation. I have staffers here but I would not require them to come in. That’s my responsibility."

Soon, members might have to return to D.C. to cast votes on the House floor, although lawmakers are exploring options such as proxy voting, in order to avoid forcing every member of Congress to travel back from 435 corners of the country.

Green, 72, described an "eerie" experience, detailing his trip from William P. Hobby Airport to Washington-Reagan National Airport on Monday evening.

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"I walked in and I was the only person that I saw that was going to go through security at that point," Green recalled, adding that he spotted "maybe five or six people," on the walk from security to Gate 25.

His flight on Southwest Airlines soon boarded, sending just nine passengers to Washington.

"I had eight other people on the flight," Green reported, insisting the passengers kept a safe distance from each other and they were able to spread out enough to comply with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on social distancing.

"Everybody had not only an entire row, but also at least five or more seats between us," he said. "It was almost as though I had my own private 737. A huge jet plane, with just a few friends on-board."

When Green arrived at the D.C. airport, he realized he had the wrong set of keys, so he could not drive his own car or immediately access his congressional office or condominium. Because he couldn’t drive himself, he hailed a cab and worked the phones to gain access to his office so he could retrieve another set of keys.

As he arrived at the Capitol, Green said the scene was practically a ghost town, with janitorial staff scaled back by at least 75% with Congress out of session.

The lawmaker said he filed three measures, including a bill to address enforcement of fair housing laws to prevent and detect discrimination in mortgage lending. Another bill will lift the $250,000 cap of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s insurance of private bank accounts and a third bill would enable Minority Depository Institutions to borrow at 0% interest rates.

"These three bills were just that important to me and my constituents," Green said. "In general, it was an experience unlike any I’ve had before in traveling from Houston to Washington … You don’t go to airport where you’re the only person at security."

He added, "You’re rarely on plane with only nine passengers and you don’t arrive at the Capitol that seems to be in lock down."

It was after midnight when he was able to resolve his problems with the help of a couple U.S. Capitol Police officers and the superintendent’s office. Across the Capitol at that hour, White House officials and Senate leaders wrapped up a long session of negotiations.

"The people who work at the Capitol never get enough credit for the duties that they perform. They do go above and beyond the call of duty," he said of the unheralded employees who helped him through his quest. "I’m grateful."

At noon on Tuesday, Green attended a pro forma session of the House, leading the chamber in the Pledge of Allegiance, but he says he is not sticking around to wait for the Senate to send a bill to the House. Instead, he has two tickets booked to return to Houston on Tuesday evening – making two reservations in case either flight is cancelled.

"Going back I have a Southwest flight, and have a United flight booked," he said. "I think we’re getting close to a point where airlines say it’s not worth it to fly planes with so few people on board."

With bipartisan calls for Congress to change its rules to permit remote voting, and discussions underway to allow members to cast proxy votes, Green stresses that "extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary behavior."

"Under normal circumstance I don’t think this discussion would have any traction at all," Green said. "I think the rules should be relaxed."

He predicts that if the pandemic worsens, "my belief is that we will do it."

"I do believe that voting remotely would be a great benefit, not in the sense of having to avoid the travel, but avoid being exposed," Green said. "I was fortunate to be on plane with nine passengers."

He added that this crisis isn't about politics, but about "humanity."

"The politics we are capable of dealing with. We have to realize that the normal rules just don’t apply and we have to apply rules suitable for the time," he said. "These are some extraordinary times and you have to have extraordinary rules."

What to know about coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the US and Worldwide: coronavirus map