Fate of $2,000 stimulus checks proposal, backed by Trump, is in McConnell’s hands

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Trump and a number of lawmakers have called for the larger stimulus payments amid signs that the economy has worsened in recent months.

Under pressure from Trump, Democratic leaders, and some fellow Republicans — as well as a legislative ultimatum delivered Monday by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — McConnell must navigate a path that addresses the president’s concerns without exposing his party to political attacks one week before a pair of Georgia special elections that will determine the Senate majority.

The House of Representatives on Dec. 28 voted on a bipartisan basis to boost stimulus checks set to go out to American households from $600 to $2,000. (The Washington Post)

The two Georgia Republicans who are on the ballot — Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue — face the prospect of having to spend several unexpected days in Washington due to Sanders’s demand for a vote on the House’s $2,000 checks bill.

“Let me be clear: If Senator McConnell doesn’t agree to an up or down vote to provide the working people of our country a $2,000 direct payment, Congress will not be going home for New Year’s Eve,” Sanders said in a statement late Monday. “Let’s do our job.”

Aides to McConnell declined to comment Monday. McConnell is expected to lay out the Senate’s next moves around noon on Tuesday, when he is expected to speak on the Senate floor. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday he will move to pas the House checks bill later on Tuesday, though such a move could be easily blocked by Senate Republicans.

Trump weighed in Tuesday morning: “Give the people $2000, not $600. They have suffered enough!” he wrote in a tweet that shared news of Sanders’s ultimatum.

Sanders’s threat scramble 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. Besides the drama over Trump’s late demands, the Senate must also weigh in on Trump’s pending veto of the annual Pentagon policy bill.

The House voted overwhelmingly to override the veto Monday, setting up action in the Senate. An informal plan of holding the vote on Wednesday and sending senators home until the Jan. 3 swearing-in could very well be threatened by the checks drama: Sanders is threatening to withhold his consent for an earlier vote on the veto unless McConnell allows a vote on the larger checks — meaning a final vote on the override could be pushed to Friday.

But acceding to Sanders is not an easy choice for the majority leader: The larger checks have only scant support 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 staggeringly high price tag for many Republicans who have spent years fretting publicly about a growing national debt.

Both Loeffler and Perdue have taken public credit in their campaigns for delivering the $600 checks in the signed bill. But they have not weighed in on the $2,000 checks, while their Democratic opponents — Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, respectively — have both enthusiastically embraced the larger amounts.

There are significant pockets of support for larger checks inside the GOP: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) was an early and aggressive support of direct stimulus checks, pushing with Sanders for $1,200 checks at a time when most Republicans preferred to see smaller payments or no checks at all. And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) lent support to the larger checks on Monday.

“I agree with the President that millions of working class families are in dire need of additional relief, which is why I support $2,000 in direct payments to Americans struggling due to the pandemic,” Rubio said in a statement, adding: “I share many of my colleagues’ concern about the long-term effects of additional spending, but we cannot ignore the fact that millions of working class families across the nation are still in dire need of relief.”

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.

Despite Trump’s statement, McConnell has not acknowledged any such “process.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who worked to convince Trump to sign the relief bill, 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.”