- Larger direct payments of $2,000 looked all but doomed as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would not separate the checks from unrelated demands from President Donald Trump.
- McConnell introduced legislation to tie the checks to measures backed by Trump related to internet platforms and elections, which the Republican knows would not get Democratic support.
- Meanwhile, the Treasury Department started to send out the $600 payments included in the year-end $900 billion coronavirus relief plan.
Efforts to boost the direct payments in the year-end coronavirus relief bill to $2,000 appeared all but doomed Wednesday as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would not separate the plan from President Donald Trump's unrelated demands on technology and election policy.
"The Senate is not going to split apart the three issues that President Trump linked together just because Democrats are afraid to address two of them," he said on the Senate floor.
The Democratic-held House has approved a stand-alone bill to boost the checks to $2,000 from $600, as 44 Republicans prodded by Trump joined nearly all Democrats in backing the measure. The GOP-controlled Senate has said it will not pass the checks without attaching other Trump priorities that Democrats consider toxic — and McConnell knows would sink any legislation.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tried to unanimously call up a vote on the stand-alone bill to send bigger payments for the second straight day. He said, "the only way to get the American people the $2,000 checks they deserve and need is to pass the House bill, and pass it now." McConnell again rejected his request.
As the dispute played out in the Senate, the Treasury Department started to send out the payments of up to $600 on Tuesday night. If Congress can overcome the thorny political dynamics to increase the deposits to $2,000 — which looked unlikely Wednesday — the government would later add on to the cash it already distributed.
McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday introduced the bill that would boost the payments to $2,000 but also repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides legal liability protections for internet platforms, and create a commission on voter fraud. The president has pushed for the latter provision as he alleges without evidence that widespread fraud cost him the 2020 presidential race against President-elect Joe Biden.
Schumer said Tuesday that tying other proposals to the direct cash measure "would be a blatant attempt to deprive Americans of a $2,000 survival check."
McConnell has tried to balance a desire not to immediately add to the price tag of the $900 billion rescue package, while appeasing a GOP president who has fixated on sending more direct payments to struggling Americans. The president's demands have put the Senate GOP in a tricky position ahead of the Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia, which will determine whether the party keeps control of the chamber.
Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday urged the Senate to approve the stand-alone bill before the new Congress starts at noon ET on Sunday.
"I do hope that in the days ahead — we only have a few days left in the session — that they will see the light and understand the suffering that is going on in this country," Pelosi, a California Democrat, said of Republicans.
Meanwhile, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., blocked another attempt by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to force a vote on the bigger payments on Wednesday.
"It doesn't make sense to have these universal payments. Any relief should be targeted," he told CNBC earlier in the day.
The Senate has not yet voted to override Trump's veto of the annual National Defense Authorization Act. McConnell called lawmakers back this week to do so. While the chamber plans to take procedural steps Wednesday to move toward a vote, it may not override the veto until as late as Saturday.
Sanders blocked swift consideration of the defense measure Tuesday as he called for a vote on the stand-alone bill to increase the direct payments to $2,000. In pushing again to pass the legislation Wednesday, the senator brought a blown up copy of a Trump tweet in which the president pushed for "$2000 ASAP!"
At least four Republican senators — Josh Hawley of Missouri, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue of Georgia — have expressed support for bigger payments. Loeffler and Perdue are campaigning in Jan. 5 runoff elections that will determine which party controls the Senate for the next two years. Hawley and Rubio are considered potential GOP candidates for president in 2024.
Trump continues to call on Congress to approve $2,000 checks after he threatened to veto the relief bill because it included too little direct cash to Americans. He relented and signed it Sunday.
The Senate dispute over checks continues more than eight months of disagreement on Capitol Hill about how far the federal government should go to boost the economy and health-care system during the pandemic. Democrats have pushed to pass trillions more in aid since May, two months after Congress passed the more than $2 trillion CARES Act. Republicans started to call for more relief again in July, and never increased their price tag above about $1 trillion.
Lawmakers then failed for months to approve any new relief before settling on the $900 billion package that passed this month. They let lifelines such as the $600 per week federal unemployment supplement and the window to apply for forgivable small business loans, which helped to keep millions out of poverty and businesses' doors open during the early days of the pandemic, fall to the wayside.
The new rescue package, which passed in the same legislation as a $1.4 trillion regular government spending plan, renews some of the provisions from the spring. It puts a $300 per week unemployment enhancement in place through mid-March. The payment is half of what jobless Americans got from the CARES Act.
It also extends provisions that allow gig, freelance and self-employed workers to get unemployment insurance, and increases the maximum number of benefit weeks.
The bill sends $600 direct payments to most Americans. The sum is half of the $1,200 included in the CARES Act.
It also puts more than $300 billion into small business support, mostly through $284 billion in Paycheck Protection Program loans. It includes $8 billion for vaccine distribution as states struggle to keep up with early inoculations.
The measure puts $82 billion into education and $45 billion into transportation. It does not include state and local relief, a measure Democrats and many Republicans back to prevent layoffs from government payrolls.