Push for $2,000 stimulus checks hits Senate buzzsaw
Bipartisan calls to increase the amount of COVID-19 relief checks to $2,000 is facing resistance in the GOP-controlled Senate and sparking division between President Trump and Republican lawmakers.
Calls to boost the amount of the direct payments from $600 are gaining support, with Trump, Democratic leadership and a growing number of GOP senators, including vulnerable incumbents in Georgia, backing the effort.
But a House-passed bill is still facing headwinds in the Senate that could doom its chances.
The House has already left Washington, D.C., meaning that for the bill to become law, it must pass the Senate, without any changes, before noon on Sunday, when the 117th Congress is sworn in.
McConnell blocked two efforts by Democrats on Tuesday to take up the House legislation, instead signaling he could try to package the increase with changes to legal protections for technology companies and election-related investigations.
“The president highlighted three additional issues of national significance he would like to see Congress tackle together. … Those are the three important subjects the president has linked together. This week, the Senate will begin a process to bring these three priorities into focus,” McConnell said from the Senate floor.
McConnell’s strategy comes after Trump, in his statement on signing the $2.3 trillion package, said the Senate would “start the process for a vote” that tackles the three issues.
After McConnell blocked the efforts from Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Trump tweeted that Republicans need to promptly pass legislation to increase the checks to $2,000. But Trump in the same tweet also brought up election investigations and repealing Section 230, a law he describes as a tech shield.
“Unless Republicans have a death wish, and it is also the right thing to do, they must approve the $2000 payments ASAP. $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!” he tweeted.
There’s growing support within the caucus for increasing the amount of the checks, and the public rebuke from Trump comes as the caucus is fighting to keep control of the Senate majority, needing to win two runoff elections in Georgia next month.
Georgia GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler came out in support of $2,000 payments on Tuesday. Their Democratic opponents, Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, respectively, had already expressed their support for larger checks and have made the issue of direct payments a key part of their campaigns.
“I’m delighted to support the president in this $2,000. … So I fully support what the president is doing right now,” Perdue said during an interview with Fox News.
Loeffler, in a separate Fox News interview, added that “we need to get relief to Americans now, and I will support that.”
Other Republicans including Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are also supportive.
McConnell, on Tuesday afternoon, started the process for getting two bills on the Senate calendar, which will make them available for, but doesn’t guarantee, a vote. One is the House-passed bill, and the second is a bill that links the stimulus checks with Section 230 reforms and an election commission.
But linking the stimulus checks to those other issues could doom support for a bill in the Senate.
“People are hurting, and I think we need to give them more aid. I’m upset it’s not targeted. I’m upset the process is always throwing everything in together,” said Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.).
Asked if she could support increasing the amount of the direct payments, she added, “It depends on what’s on the floor. I don’t like everything rolled in together. I think you end up with bad policy.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) also said she thought Section 230 should be reformed but that it and the debate over stimulus checks were “two separate issues.”
Asked what she expected to happen this week, Collins acknowledged she was in the dark: “Good question. … No one knows. This was unexpected.”
Supporters of the House bill are accusing McConnell of trying to scuttle any chance that the Senate increases the amount of the direct payments.
“It’s a poison [pill]. I don’t know what he has in mind, but the House passed, to their credit, a simple, straightforward bill. Let’s not muddy the waters. Are you for $2,000, or are you not?” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told reporters.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) added that McConnell proposing anything other than a straight up-or-down vote on the House bill, which he thinks would get 60 votes, is a “recipe for disaster.”
Any bill will need 60 votes to pass the Senate, meaning that even if every Democrat supported it, it would need at least 12 GOP senators.
But McConnell faces opposition from his own caucus for passing the House bill as is or even with the tech shield protections being asked for by Trump. Without a deal, the Senate could easily run out of time, with an unrelated defense bill expected to eat up its schedule until Friday or Saturday.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) warned that he wouldn’t consent to holding a vote on a stand-alone proposal to increase the amount of direct payments. Without a deal, any checks proposal would need to go through procedural hurdles — time it might not have before the start of the next Congress.
“I think it’s a very bad idea,” Toomey told CNN about increasing the amount of the direct payments. “This makes no sense.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) argued that it would make more sense to tie the direct payments to long-sought protection from coronavirus lawsuits instead of the tech fight. Republicans agreed to drop liability protections from the eventual stimulus deal.
But he also appeared skeptical that anything would ultimately pass, was not supportive of increasing the checks as a stand-alone bill and warned that the fight “ignores” the benefits of the recently passed $900 billion coronavirus package.
“To me, this is like Groundhog’s Day,” Cornyn said. “This is just … opportunistic on the part of the House.”
Asked about Trump’s tweet, Cornyn added that “instead of taking appropriate credit for those good things, focusing on this undermines the very positive impact.”
Collins said she thought the extra money “would be very helpful” but also appeared concerned about the structure of the House-passed bill.
“I am concerned that the way it is structured, it would also benefit upper-income individuals because it does not phase out as quickly as the $600 check,” she said.
The House bill changes the stimulus package to include a $2,000 check for individuals with income of up to $75,000 and a $4,000 check for married couples with income of up to $150,000. But because the House bill increases the size of the direct payments but keeps the same phaseout rate as the relief package, more households at the higher end of the income spectrum that would not have gotten a payment under the stimulus deal would be eligible to get some type of payment.
Others have expressed concerns about the impact of the checks on the deficit and have argued that they are not a well-targeted form of relief.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) previously blocked two attempts to provide a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks. Six GOP senators already voted against the $2.3 trillion package that included the $600 checks.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said that he’d “have a hard time supporting” $2,000 checks because it’s “such a huge number.”
In addition to increasing the payments in the new relief law for adults and children from $600 to $2,000, the House bill also makes adult dependents eligible for both the $2,000 payments and a previous $500 payment that children received under the CARES Act enacted in March.
The Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that the House bill would cost $463.8 billion.
Democrats pushed back on GOP critics’ deficit-related complaints about boosting the size of the direct payments.
“Senate Republicans added nearly $2 trillion to the deficit to give corporations a massive tax cut,” Schumer said. “So I don’t want to hear it that it costs too much to help working families get a check when they’re struggling to keep their jobs, pay their families, pay their rent, feed their families, and live a halfway normal and decent life.”
Updated at 6:26 p.m.
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