$2,000 Stimulus Payments and Defense Spending at Stake in Senate Showdown
The Senate is in a showdown Tuesday over key pieces of legislation to support struggling Americans and the nation’s defense.
The clock is ticking as Congress itches to go on recess and the current session nears its end — newly elected representatives will be sworn in Sunday, less the two Georgia senators to be determined after the Jan. 5 runoff election.
Outgoing President Donald Trump pushed things to the brink last week when he vetoed the defense spending bill and refused to sign the bipartisan omnibus spending package, including the $900 billion COVID relief stimulus deal that took several months of negotiations to craft.
In a video posted online, which came as a surprise to most White House staff, he said he wanted the direct payments increased to $2,000 and wanted “pork” removed. He failed to mention that the “pork” items were largely included at his request and were actually part of the government spending bill, not the attached COVID relief package.
In the relief portion of the omnibus package, which he ultimately signed Sunday night, the two sides had agreed to $300 weekly enhanced unemployment benefits and $600 direct stimulus payments, among other related allocations for things like rental assistance and vaccine distribution.
As Trump golfed for days at his Florida resort, a Tuesday government shutdown and lapsed unemployment benefits loomed until he finally signed the bill. Still, the impact of his delay will be felt by millions of unemployed people who saw benefits temporarily expire at midnight Saturday, causing at least a one-week loss of payments for those most in need.
While Trump publicly suggested at times that he wanted direct payments increased, those who negotiated on his behalf, like Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, railed against anything more than $600 agreed on, and getting to that number was like pulling teeth. Democrats, prominently Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), have consistently called for at least $1,200 direct payments, which included in the HEROES Act passed by the House in May — Republicans led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have repeatedly quashed those attempts.
In an odd and last-minute move Sunday, Trump signed the bill from a ballroom at Mar-a-Lago. To the naked eye, it seemed like he caved under the pressure of a financially-pressed populace and looming government shutdown. However, he claimed he’d gotten assurance Congress would later pass the $2,000 per person he recently demanded as part of pandemic relief.
His veto of the National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the military, was hitched on demands to remove Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and to strike language that would strip away Confederate names and symbols.
Monday, the House passed the $2,000 payment provision handily, with the support of 44 Republicans, and overrode his veto of the NDAA. The two issues are now at the mercy of the Senate, which brings us to Tuesday’s standoff.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) pushed early Tuesday to pass the increased payment as a standalone measure by unanimous consent, saying:
“A vast majority of the public, Republican and Democrat, strongly support $2,000 checks. An overwhelming bipartisan majority in the House supports $2,000 checks. Senate Democrats strongly support $2,000 checks. Even President Trump supports $2,000 checks.”
McConnell quickly derailed that effort, insinuating he may entertain the payment increase as part of a measure that addresses Trump’s requests to strip Section 230 and invest in “voter fraud” investigation (courts have consistently dismissed post-election fraud cases based on lack of standing and merit — basically, they have failed to produce any real evidence).
Sanders, Schumer and most Democrats find moving of the goalpost unacceptable as the Senate attempts to head home. Keeping them there is the NDAA bill, which is traditionally passed without controversy by a majority in both parties. McConnell is expected Tuesday to bring a vote to the floor that would override Trump’s veto and he’s signaled he has the GOP votes to get it done.
But Sanders has threatened to filibuster that process unless McConnell agrees to also hold a vote on the $2,000 payments. Sanders can’t ultimately stop the veto override, but he can prolong the effort until New Years Day with the procedural stunt. As of 3 p.m. in D.C. Tuesday, the two sides are still in a stalemate.