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Senate GOP Rushes To Finish Defense Bill And Avoid Showdown On Relief Payments

Dec 30, 2020
Originally published on December 31, 2020 8:25 am

Updated at 6:17 p.m. ET

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says a measure that would increase direct payments to many Americans has "no realistic path to quickly pass the Senate."

McConnell is moving ahead with a plan to avoid a public rift within the GOP over stimulus payments demanded by President Trump ahead of a critical runoff election in Georgia.

Instead of putting the $2,000 relief payments for an up-or-down vote on their own, McConnell tied the checks to Trump's demands to investigate alleged voter fraud and to repeal a decades-old law that would open the door for lawsuits against social media companies for the content they choose to leave up or take down.

McConnell pushed back against Democrats' criticism in floor remarks Wednesday.

"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.

"The Senate is not going to be bullied into rushing out more borrowed money into the hands of the Democrats' rich friends who don't need the help. We just approved almost $1 trillion in aid a few days ago. It struck a balance between broad support for all kinds of households and a lot more targeted relief for those who need help most."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters in the Capitol earlier in the day that the move was an attempt "to kill the checks — the $2,000 checks desperately needed by so many American families — by tying them completely to partisan provisions that have absolutely nothing to do with helping struggling families across the country."

The chaotic scramble comes as McConnell attempts to shield GOP members from difficult votes in the days before control of the Senate is determined in Georgia. McConnell attempted to explain his plan on Tuesday by saying Trump tied the issues together, so the Senate will, too.

Complicating matters further, the checks are also politically entwined with a must-pass veto override on a massive defense bill. Trump vetoed the hugely bipartisan bill over his demand to repeal the liability protections that benefit social media companies.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had suggested he will filibuster that measure until the Senate votes on the $2,000 payments, though he would have little ability to stop the eventual vote on the veto override.

"Two-thirds of the House voted to provide those $2,000 checks," Sanders told reporters in the Capitol. "The overwhelming majority of Americans want that, Trump wants it, Biden wants it, Pelosi wants it, Schumer wants it. Let's have a vote, and let's pass this damn thing."

But Wednesday night, McConnell invoked cloture, limiting debate and ending Sanders' option for a filibuster. The move sets the Senate up for a final vote potentially on Friday.

The complicated process comes as a growing number of Republicans have come out in favor of the checks, including Georgia Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue who are both facing Jan. 5 runoff elections. The outcome of the Georgia races will determine control of the Senate.

Perdue and Loeffler both embraced the $2,000 payments after Trump threatened to block a massive government spending and coronavirus relief bill that included smaller $600 checks for eligible Americans.

The two have campaigned as Trump allies and have benefited from the president's support. But expanded stimulus checks are not widely popular among Republicans, in part because the payments could cost around $464 billion, according to a nonpartisan congressional budget estimate.

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An elaborate pantomime over COVID relief has apparently come to an end. Congress is not likely to increase the aid to individuals. To review here, Congress did pass a relief bill with a $600 check for each American. At the last minute, President Trump demanded $2,000, which he'd never pushed for previously and which his party didn't want. House Democrats approved, daring Senate Republicans to kill it. And now Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has effectively done that. He said he will not allow a standalone vote on the extra money because he says a check to everyone is not what people need.


MITCH MCCONNELL: What they will need is smart, targeted aid, not another fire hose of borrowed money that encompasses other people who are doing just fine.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has been covering this. Kelsey, good morning.


INSKEEP: So what does this mean? What does this mean exactly for the average person?

SNELL: Basically, it means that the $2,000 in direct aid that people have been watching Congress discuss over this past week is basically dead. You know, McConnell described it as having no realistic path for quick approval. And quick approval is what they would absolutely need if this were to happen because this Congress ends on Sunday. And, you know, a bill dies at the end of a Congress. You know, many people will still get those smaller checks that you talked about. That's $600 per adult and $600 for each dependent for those who qualify. You know, the larger checks were, in the end, a demand from President Trump that Republicans decided to reject, which is not something that we saw very often in this Congress.

You know, Senator Bernie Sanders pointed out that 10 out of the 25 poorest counties in the U.S. are located McConnell's state of Kentucky. Here's what he said.


BERNIE SANDERS: So maybe my colleague, the majority leader, might want to get on the phone and start talking to working families in Kentucky and find out how they feel about the need for immediate help in terms of a $2,000 check for adults.

SNELL: You know, Bernie Sanders was making the point that Democrats have been asking for bigger payments all along and that the reason that this all got revived was because President Trump came to their side and abandoned Republicans on this issue. Now, McConnell successfully killed the plan, though, because it was a politically difficult, you know, moment for his Republicans, many of whom really just object to the concept of doing these additional checks.

INSKEEP: We should be clear, though, there are some people in this country who don't need the $2,000, who have done fine during the pandemic, who still have their jobs, who may even be saving more money than they were in the past. So let's look at the substantive argument there. Is there a case for what Mitch McConnell said in that recording that we heard just a moment ago that you don't need to distribute money to everybody, you need to target where it goes?

SNELL: You know, a lot of economists and analysts - not just conservatives by any means - say that passing a more robust unemployment package, something that would give people a little bit more money for a longer period of time or extend unemployment for a longer period, and other programs would be better ways to help people who are struggling the most and that these blanket checks are not well-tailored and not well-targeted and don't have what is called the multiplying effect, which is getting more out of the federal dollar than, you know, than these other programs might.

INSKEEP: OK, in any case, that will be left, perhaps to a new Congress. We'll see.

I want to ask in just a few seconds that we have about Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. He says he's going to object to Congress when Congress certifies the Electoral College vote on January 6. He's going to pass on President Trump's false claims about the election. How's that affect the process?

SNELL: His objection slows down the process, but ultimately, it doesn't change the result, which is that President-elect Joe Biden received 306 electoral votes and Trump received 232. You know, the rules allow for a member of a House and Senate to object, and that's already - we've had an objection already in the House. And, you know, Hawley - there is no evidence of widespread election fraud, and Attorney General Barr has confirmed that fact. But Hawley says that he needs to speak up for the people who felt they were wronged.


JOSH HAWLEY: January 6 is the only opportunity that I've got to speak up for my constituents in this process. This is it.

SNELL: So there will be a delay of about two hours from a - for additional debate, but there will still be a vote to certify the election.

INSKEEP: Kelsey, thanks for your work all year.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: NPR's Kelsey Snell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.