In just over three weeks, Donald Trump will no longer be president, but he’s spent his last month in office sowing discord. His latest chaos muppetry — a demand that Congress increase the latest round of stimulus checks from $600 to $2,000 — has now given Democrats a slim chance to deliver more aid to Americans. And, barring that, a chance to make Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s life more difficult.
After the House on Monday passed a bill increasing the “economic impact payments” — in other words, stimulus checks — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is continuing the fight.
Sanders, with support from the Senate Democratic caucus, plans to use a series of procedural moves to delay a vote on a bipartisan defense authorization bill. These maneuvers can’t prevent the defense bill from becoming law, but that’s not really the point. The bill is considered a must-pass, and Sanders’s objections can delay passage, annoy Senate Republicans, and potentially force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to raise a series of objections that could damage his party’s ability to hold onto its Senate majority.
And Sanders also has a clear demand: He will lift his objections to an immediate vote on the defense bill if McConnell permits a vote on legislation providing $2,000 checks to Americans earning less than $75,000 a year.
The first round of this fight played out shortly after noon Tuesday on the Senate floor, during an exchange between McConnell, Sanders, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). McConnell sought a vote on the defense bill, and Sanders objected unless the Senate immediately holds an up or down vote on the $2,000 payments.
The politics of this fight favor Democrats. A recent Data for Progress poll shows that 78 percent of likely voters support the $2,000 direct payment. Trump himself backs it as well; he continues to tweet his support for $2,000 checks. On Monday, the House voted in favor of $2,000 checks, with 44 Republicans joining nearly every Democrat in favoring the legislation.
And all of this is happening as Republicans fight to hold onto two Senate seats in Georgia, a state that recently voted for Democratic President-elect Joe Biden — two seats, it’s worth noting, that will decide who controls the Senate in 2021.
If Sanders’s gambit fails, it wouldn’t be the first time that very popular legislation died in Mitch McConnell’s Senate. And McConnell still has ways out; he suggested Tuesday he could tie proposals unfavorable to Democrats to the increased stimulus checks, in order to make the entire proposition more unpalatable.
But the strange mix of circumstances that brought us to the point gives Democrats a small chance to make the $2,000 checks a reality.
The many end-of-2020 legislative fights, briefly explained
Congress entered the holiday season with three high priority items on its plate. The National Defense Authorization Act is an annual affair that sets much of the nation’s defense policy for the next year, and that instructs the military on how to spend its budget. Legislation funding much of the federal government was also set to expire last Monday, meaning that the unfunded agencies would shut down unless new money was appropriated to keep them open.
And then there’s the economic fallout from a pandemic that’s forced much of the country to remain at home, and shuttered countless businesses across the nation. House Democrats passed a $3 trillion package to relieve these financial burdens in May, but the GOP-led Senate dithered on Covid-19 relief for the next several months.
Senate Republicans, however, appeared to take a new interest in aid once their Senate majority was endangered by the two Georgia Senate races, which will be decided in a January 5 runoff election.
Racing against the end of the year — and the end of the current congressional session on January 3 — Congress managed to pass the NDAA on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis, and (after a few delays) a mega government funding and stimulus bill.
Georgia Democratic Senate candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are both campaigning on their support for Covid-19 relief, and the Senate’s decision to pass $900 billion in relief funding allowed incumbent Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler to take some credit for that bill.
But just as everything appeared settled for the year, Trump decided to spend the last couple weeks upping the level of difficulty.
The outgoing president vetoed the defense authorization bill, citing his objection to a provision requiring the military to rename facilities named after Confederate traitors, as well as a demand that the bill repeal a quarter-century-old legal provision that makes it possible for websites such as Twitter to exist.
He also briefly threatened to veto the Covid-19 relief-government funding bill — though he backed down on that threat and signed the omnibus legislation on Sunday evening. Among other things, Trump claimed that the Covid-19 relief bill should have provided a $2,000 check to low- and middle-income Americans. The bill he signed provides only a $600 check.
The punchline is that the Senate needs to return to Washington this week to override Trump’s veto on the defense bill (the House already voted to override Trump’s veto on Monday). And that gives Senate Democrats a brief window to push for the $2,000 checks.
Georgia’s Republican senators are in a bind
Even before Biden’s victory, McConnell resisted many calls for additional Covid-19 relief spending, at times claiming that he was more concerned about the national debt. During the Obama years, McConnell and his fellow congressional Republicans frequently cited deficit fears to push for austerity budgets, although they fell out of love with deficit hawkery almost as soon as a Republican took up residence in the White House.
With Biden set to take office next month, Republicans ordinarily could be expected to return to their position under Obama — resisting spending bills that could boost the economy under a Democratic president.
But Biden isn’t president yet, and the most immediate electoral concern for Senate Republicans is holding onto the two Georgia seats. Neither Perdue nor Loeffler wants to be on the unpopular side of a fight over the $2,000 checks, and both have come out in support of them — Perdue did so as recently as Tuesday morning.
Perdue and Loeffler’s rhetorical support for the $2,000 checks will mean little to Americans who would benefit from those checks if the Senate never votes to approve them. And the two senators may not gain much political advantage from endorsing more direct relief if their own Senate leader maneuvers to block such a vote — which is where Bernie Sanders comes in.
The Senate rules are a maze of dilatory tactics, mandatory waiting periods, and other procedures that allow the minority to put off votes until later. A determined majority leader can still bring bills to the floor, but not before wasting days overcoming these obstacles.
Typically, these delays are avoided through unanimous consent. If no senator objects to the majority leader’s request to bypass the many delays permitted by the Senate rules, then the chamber’s business can proceed very quickly. McConnell hoped to have unanimous consent to move to an immediate vote on the defense bill veto override on Tuesday, but Sanders moved to deny McConnell such consent.
Without unanimous consent, McConnell will need to use a multi-day process to bring the veto override vote to the floor over Sanders’s objection. Democrats, meanwhile, can spend that time repeatedly seeking a vote on the $2,000 checks — forcing McConnell to either acquiesce in that request or go on record opposing the vote.
McConnell could also try to attach a poison pill to legislation providing for $2,000 checks and call a vote on a modified bill that Democrats would find unacceptable, but Sanders and other members of the Democratic caucus could still delay a vote on the defense bill unless Republicans agree to remove the poison pill.
Again, acting alone, the Democratic minority cannot force a vote on the $2,000 in direct relief. But they may not have to. The easiest way to get to an immediate vote on the defense bill is to hold an up or down vote on the $2,000 checks, and allow every senator to go on record as for or against them. If the GOP-controlled Senate passed the enhanced Covid-19 relief bill, Perdue and Loeffler may even be able to plausibly claim a share of the credit for its passage.
Senate Republicans, in other words, are likely to find themselves torn between a desire to pivot to deficit hawkery in anticipation of Biden’s presidency, and a desire to shore up two vulnerable senators that Republicans need if they hope to maintain a Senate majority.
It’s far from certain that the latter desire will be enough to pass the $2,000 in direct payments, but proponents of more Covid-19 relief have a little more reason to be optimistic than they did just a week ago.