By Mike DeBonis and Tony Romm,
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday blocked consideration of a House bill that would deliver $2,000 stimulus payments to most Americans — spurning a request by President Trump even as more Senate Republicans voiced support for the dramatically larger checks.
McConnell’s move was just the beginning of a saga that is likely to engulf the Senate for the rest of the week. Democrats are pushing for an up-or-down vote on the House bill, while more Republicans acknowledge a need for larger stimulus checks.
Tension within the Republican party spilled into public view on Tuesday, with Trump leveling pointed attacks at GOP leaders for failing to act, accusing them of being “pathetic” and suggesting they had a “death wish.”
New proponents of the $2,000 checks include Georgia’s two embattled Republican senators — David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler — who find themselves in tough reelection battles that will decide the fate of the chamber next week. GOP Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska also lent support Tuesday, declaring that “people are hurting and we need to get them more aid.”
Before adjourning the Senate Tuesday, McConnell began the process of bringing up both the House-passed bill as well as a new bill combining larger checks with the establishment of a commission to study election fraud and a repeal of liability protections for the technology companies and other firms.
While McConnell’s move does not guarantee that either measure will get voted on, it could be a prelude to a “side-by-side” deal between Senate leaders that would secure votes on both bills with the understanding that neither is likely to garner the necessary 60 votes. All of these issues could lead to a showdown on the Senate floor on Friday.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said an attempt to package all these measures into one bill amounted to an attempt to poison the bipartisan effort to deliver larger checks and would be opposed by Democrats. In a statement, he called it “a blatant attempt to deprive Americans of a $2,000 survival check.”
Amid the legislative jockeying Tuesday, Trump escalated his blistering attacks on GOP leaders.
“WE NEED NEW & ENERGETIC REPUBLICAN LEADERSHIP,” he wrote.
He also said there would be consequences for his political party if they didn’t act.
“Unless Republicans have a death wish, and it is also the right thing to do, they must approve the $2000 payments ASAP,” Trump wrote. “$600 IS NOT ENOUGH! Also, get rid of Section 230 – Don’t let Big Tech steal our Country, and don’t let the Democrats steal the Presidential Election. Get tough!”
The shifting Senate winds come a day after the House passed a bill to increase stimulus checks with a bipartisan 275-to-134 vote. That proposal, called the Caring for Americans with Supplemental Help (Cash) Act, aims to boost the $600 payments authorized in the massive year-end spending-and-relief package that Trump signed Sunday by another $1,400 and expand eligibility for them.
Early Tuesday afternoon, Schumer went to the floor to request the Senate take up the House-passed bill.
“There’s a major difference in saying you support $2,000 checks and fighting to put them into law,” he said. “The House bill is the only way to deliver these stimulus checks before the end of session. Will Senate Republicans stand against the House of Representatives, the Democratic majority in the Senate and the president of their own party to prevent these $2,000 checks from going out the door?”
McConnell objected without making further comment.
Despite the new pressure from Trump, some other Senate Republicans expressed reservations about voting for a bill with the larger payments. Some of them cited the rising debt and pointed to the extraordinary amount of federal aid that Congress had already approved.
“This is all funny money, borrowed money at this point, and that’s another consideration,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Tuesday. “I mean, [we’re] being just frivolous about the way we spend money and rack up debt. I think people are willing to do what we need to do if they feel like it’s an immediate need and it’s an emergency, which we have already done and we’ll probably continue to do.”
Still, the addition of new Republican support further intensified the political pressure on the Republican leader, who now must navigate a path that addresses the president’s concerns without exposing his party to additional political attacks one week before the pair of Georgia special elections determines the Senate majority.
The debate has created strange political bedfellows, aligning Trump with his Democratic foes in Congress, who have sought larger stimulus payments for months amid signs that the economy has worsened.
The Georgia senators joined Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), one of the earliest GOP proponents for sizable checks, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who endorsed the idea on Monday, and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who helped persuade Trump to sign the bill by backing a push for larger checks.
“Absolutely, we need to get relief to Americans now, and I will support that,” Loeffler said on Fox News. Perdue, meanwhile, tweeted hours later that he backs “this push for $2,000 in direct relief for the American people.”
Fischer would not say if she would vote for the House bill but said she opposes combining the question of larger payments with other issues: “I don’t like everything rolled in together. I think you end up with bad policy.”
Both Loeffler and Perdue have taken public credit in their campaigns for delivering the $600 checks in the signed bill. But they had not weighed in on the $2,000 checks before Tuesday, while their Democratic opponents — Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, respectively — have both enthusiastically embraced the larger amounts for days.
The new wave of Republican support left Hawley convinced Tuesday that the Senate had the necessary 60 votes to advance the proposal, adding in a tweet: “Let’s vote today.”
But the Senate now appears to be in a holding pattern. An emboldened Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who pushed for bigger checks for weeks, issued his own ultimatum Tuesday, blocking a planned Wednesday vote to override Trump’s veto of the annual defense policy bill unless McConnell relents and allows a stand-alone vote on the House checks bill.
“I don’t know what he has in mind, but the House passed, to their credit, a simple straightforward bill,” Sanders told reporters. “Let’s not muddy the waters: Are you for $2,000 or are you not?”
Sanders’s threat scrambled a tight timeline for the final days of the current Congress, which will end on Sunday when the new class of lawmakers is sworn in. Without unanimous agreement, the Senate cannot vote on the veto override until Friday at the earliest — raising the prospect that the two Georgia senators would have to spend several unexpected days in Washington amid the closing week of their reelection campaigns.
The House voted overwhelmingly to override the veto Monday. Speaking on the floor Tuesday, McConnell left little doubt about the final outcome once the Senate vote is taken: “Soon this important legislation will be passed into law,” he said of the defense bill.
Acceding to Sanders and Democrats is not an easy choice for the majority leader: There is still major opposition to the larger checks among Senate Republicans, who insisted for months than any pandemic relief measure following on the March Cares Act cost taxpayers no more than $1 trillion.
Adding $2,000 checks to the roughly $900 billion package that Trump signed Sunday would add $464 billion to the cost of the legislation — a staggering price tag for many Republicans who have spent years fretting publicly about a growing national debt.
As McConnell acknowledged, Trump’s demands are not limited to larger checks. In a Sunday statement released after he signed the massive stimulus bill, Trump said the Senate would “start the process for a vote that increases checks to $2,000, repeals Section 230, and starts an investigation into voter fraud.”
“Section 230” is a reference to a 1996 federal law that broadly indemnifies tech platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google for the actions of their users. Trump has railed against the tech companies as they have started to crack down on his unfounded postings alleging voter fraud in the November election, as well as much more aggressive actions targeting postings made by his supporters containing threats and disinformation.
Graham said in an interview Monday that there would be a vote on the checks and on the law governing tech companies, but he did not know if those votes would be held before the current Congress adjourns.
He predicted that if there was a stand-alone vote on the $2,000 checks, it would pass the Senate with the necessary 60 votes.
“What drove [Trump’s] thinking was, I’m not going to give in until I get a vote on the checks in the Senate, and I’m not going to sign this bill until we finally address section 230,” he said. “I don’t know how Mitch is going to do it.”