Support grows for stimulus checks, but they may wait

Support grew on Tuesday for including a new round of stimulus checks in the COVID-19 relief package being negotiated on Capitol Hill, even as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle indicated that any direct payments are more likely to be part of a follow-up measure next year.

The last-minute push faces long odds of success, particularly as many Republicans aim to keep the bill’s price tag from ballooning.

Still, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Tuesday called on congressional leaders in both parties to fit the $1,200 payments into the next relief measure. He spearheaded a letter with several other progressive senators urging Democrats to join them in demanding Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other leaders include the direct funds for households in any emergency coronavirus legislation.

“The idea that McConnell and the Republicans are not supporting a $1,200 check for individuals up to a certain limit — similar to the CARES Act — and $500 for the kids is absolutely unacceptable,” Sanders said. “There’s a lot of pain out there. The American people are looking to us for help and Democrats [should] stand up for working families of this country.”

President Trump has long supported direct payments, and The Washington Post reported Tuesday that White House officials are asking Senate Republicans to include $600 checks in a package.

Ben Williamson, a White House spokesperson, said in an email to The Hill that “while the amount is yet to be determined, direct payments to American workers continue to be a high priority of the President’s.”

In the months following passage of the CARES Act in March, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have voiced support for direct payments in the next relief package. But a $908 billion bipartisan proposal offered by a group of House and Senate moderates last week did not include the popular provision.

Progressives are now ramping up their calls for stimulus checks, arguing they are desperately needed at a time when people are struggling to afford basic necessities.

Sanders said he had spoken to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) about the issue and called the $908 billion compromise proposal insufficient to meet the nation’s needs.

Some on the right share that sentiment.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate, said Monday that he has encouraged Trump to veto any bill that doesn’t include direct payments.

The following day he said supporters of the $908 billion measure “seem pretty dug in on the idea of not including checks.”

“I see them saying things like, ‘This is an emergency relief bill.’ I don’t know what’s more of an emergency than working people and families who are having to get in food lines. I don’t understand that logic at all,” he said. “We’ll see what they do.”

Stephen Moore, an outside adviser to Trump, said the president “has always said he wants payments to individuals as part of a stimulus package.”

But Moore, who has not spoken to Trump about the current negotiations, also said there are divisions in the White House about what course of action to take — specifically whether Trump’s final act should be signing into law a massive relief bill.

The direct payments in the CARES Act cost nearly $300 billion.

“It’s not necessary. It’s probably going to be a negative for the economy and we don’t need more government spending, we need less,” Moore said of another round of stimulus.

A senior Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss internal GOP deliberations said the goal is to keep the entire cost of the new COVID-19 relief package under $1 trillion. The lawmaker said there’s support for another round of $1,200 payments but pointed out there isn’t any consensus on what would be subtracted to keep the cost of the relief bill below $1 trillion.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday that he offered Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) a $916 billion coronavirus relief deal, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) later telling reporters at the Capitol that the proposal included direct payments to households, though details were not immediately clear.

McConnell on Tuesday suggested passing a relief package that’s even smaller than the $908 billion proposal  — setting aside the issues of liability protection for businesses and aid to state and local governments, where Democrats and Republicans have struggled to reach consensus. He did not mention direct payments.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on Tuesday said he thinks it’s unlikely that another round of $1,200 checks will be included in the COVID-19 package that White House advisers and congressional leaders are negotiating.

“I doubt it,” Grassley said.

Grassley said he could vote for a new round of checks but advised that negotiators have to focus on the issues that have the broadest support instead of getting derailed by the demands of smaller factions.

“We can’t worry about a handful of members wanting this on the Republican side and a handful of members on the Democratic side wanting something. Otherwise, we won’t get anything done, and we’ve got to do something,” he said.

Many Senate Republicans, including Grassley, don’t want to spend significantly more than the $500 billion target set by McConnell earlier this year.

Asked about the cost increase of adding stimulus checks, Grassley said “$908 billion is too much for me.”

“Would I vote for a $908 billion [package]? I might do that, but it’s too big for me and it’s going to have to fit within that or less,” Grassley said.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said Tuesday afternoon that stimulus checks are “not a part of the discussion at this point” but added they “could be.”

“There are certainly members on both sides who would like to see that be part of the package. But there is also considerably more opposition to it,” he said. “If something else falls out, maybe that falls in.”

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), one of the authors of the $908 billion proposal, told Fox News’s Chris Wallace on Sunday that another round of direct payments isn’t in their bill because their measure is instead focused on providing relief for those who need it the most over the next three or four months. But he didn’t rule out direct payments being included in a subsequent bill.

“There may be a stimulus check, but that would be part of a different piece of legislation,” Cassidy said.

Democratic leaders are supportive of more direct payments, but they said a new round of checks should not replace other priorities that are already in the compromise package, such as aid to state and local governments.

“The bottom line is many of us on our side of the aisle, myself included, are for direct payments, but they should be added to the Gang of Eight proposal, not substituted for something else,” Schumer said.

Pelosi said Tuesday that she hopes there will be another round of direct payments in the next relief bill, but added it’s up to Trump.

“That’s really more up to the president if he would be agreeable to do that, but we’re all for it,” she told reporters.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) on Tuesday emphasized that the bipartisan proposal includes housing assistance, food-insecurity assistance and extending unemployment benefits.

“That is a solid foundation to build upon,” he said at a news conference. “We’ll see what happens over the next few days.”

President-elect Joe Biden on Friday expressed support for another round of direct payments but did not insist that it be a part of a relief bill this year.

“You got to find the sweet spot where you have enough people willing to move in a direction that gets us a long way down the road but isn’t the whole answer,” he said.

Morgan Chalfant contributed.

Tags Bernie Sanders Bill Cassidy Charles Schumer Chris Wallace Chuck Grassley Donald Trump Hakeem Jeffries Joe Biden John Thune Josh Hawley Kevin McCarthy Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Stephen Moore Steven Mnuchin

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