Republican leaders in both chambers are scrambling to get a bipartisan coronavirus relief and government funding package across the finish line and avert a year-end disaster after President Trump unexpectedly voiced last-minute objections to the legislation passed by Congress earlier this week.
Washington was blindsided Tuesday evening by Trump’s lengthy criticism of the $900 billion COVID-19 relief measure and $1.4 trillion omnibus that needs to be signed in the coming days to avoid a government shutdown.
Now, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s most loyal Senate allies, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) are trying to salvage the $2.3 trillion package, GOP sources said.
Graham is pushing for a vote on $2,000 stimulus checks, instead of the $600 direct payments in the bipartisan bill, and a sunset of Section 230 in the Communications Decency Act that shields social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter from lawsuits for content posted on their sites. Trump on Wednesday vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act for, among other things, not including a repeal of Section 230.
A Senate GOP aide said it makes sense for Graham to be involved with efforts to save the coronavirus-omnibus measure given the senator’s close relationship with Trump, who has recently soured on other Senate Republicans.
Trump has vented frustration with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) for not putting up more of a fight to overturn the results of the presidential election. Trump even tweeted on Tuesday that Thune would face a primary challenge in 2022 when he’s up for reelection.
Graham on Wednesday said Congress should vote on language boosting the size of the stimulus checks and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
“I support President @realDonaldTrump’s demand to increase direct payments for long-suffering Americans to $2,000 per person. And I also support his call to end Section 230 Big Tech legal liability protection. Let’s vote,” he tweeted.
But such a package — boosting the size of the stimulus checks and exposing social media platforms to liability over content — would face bipartisan opposition, as many Republicans are worried about the soaring deficit and many Democrats don’t want to take a punitive shot at tech firms.
On the House side, McCarthy told GOP colleagues during a conference call Wednesday afternoon that he spoke with Trump and is working to counter a request Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) plans to make on the House floor Thursday morning to increase the size of the stimulus checks from $600 to $2,000. McCarthy’s proposal would be aimed at cutting spending, two sources familiar with discussions said.
McCarthy outlined his strategy Wednesday evening in a letter to Republican colleagues, accusing Democrats of “selective hearing” because they are seizing on Trump’s demand for a larger stimulus checks but ignoring his complaints about wasteful spending.
“They have conveniently ignored the concerns expressed by the President, and shared by our constituents, that we ought to reexamine how our tax dollars are spent overseas,” he wrote. “Thus, Republicans will offer a unanimous consent request to revisit the State and Foreign Operations title of the Omnibus so that we can fully address the concerns at hand.”
One House Republican who was on the Wednesday's call said GOP leaders would prefer to offer spending cuts instead of more than doubling the size of the stimulus checks in order to placate Trump.
“Pelosi is obviously playing politics, so this a countermove. It's basically cut the things the president was bitching about without doing the additional money [for stimulus checks],” the lawmaker said.
Democrats have seized on Trump’s bashing of the bill to put pressure on McCarthy and McConnell to back $2,000 stimulus checks.
“Americans need $2,000 checks. Senator McConnell: Americans need help NOW,” Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) tweeted Wednesday afternoon.
Pelosi said she will seek unanimous consent during a 9 a.m. pro forma session Thursday to bring up a stand-alone bill to increase the size of the stimulus checks to $2,000.
“If the President truly wants to join us in $2,000 payments, he should call upon Leader McCarthy to agree to our Unanimous Consent request,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to Democratic colleagues.
McCarthy told Republican lawmakers during the Wednesday afternoon call that Republicans would block Pelosi’s request. GOP lawmakers say they are increasingly concerned about the $3.1 trillion federal deficit.
McCarthy told colleagues that Trump hasn’t made up his mind about whether to veto the massive COVID-19 relief and omnibus package, which he could hold at his desk until after the new Congress convenes on Jan. 3. If Trump doesn’t take action on the legislation during the 10 days that he’s allotted by the Constitution, excluding Sundays, it would result in a pocket veto and Congress could not vote to override it.
Instead, lawmakers in the new Congress would have to begin negotiating another package, something leaders want to avoid since it took more than seven months to strike a deal on the bill passed earlier this week.
Trump’s opposition to the bill caught lawmakers in both chambers by surprise, in large part because Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows helped negotiate the package.
The $600 stimulus checks, which Trump now complains are too small, were first floated to Democratic leaders by Mnuchin in a Dec. 8 phone call.
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) told his GOP colleagues in a Wednesday call that he felt “Trump threw us under the bus.”
“The president was updated on this bill every step of the way by the GOP leadership. The COVID supplemental is a good compromise and the president should take it,” Bacon said in a public statement after the call, standing by his comments.
One looming deadline that has Republicans wringing their hands is Monday evening, when federal funding expires if Trump doesn’t sign the coronavirus relief and omnibus spending package into law. That would result in a government shutdown.
But before then is the so-called unemployment benefits cliff on Saturday, when two key programs providing benefits for millions of out-of-work Americans are set to expire.
Another major headache for GOP leaders is Trump’s veto of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which Congress has enacted for 59 consecutive years.
McConnell had already scheduled the Senate to return to Washington for possible votes on Dec. 29, when he can begin the process of setting up a vote to override the defense bill veto. But Senate GOP leaders say they will only act if two-thirds of the House votes to override the veto.
McConnell, who has come under criticism from Trump for not joining his effort to overturn the election results in several swing states, kept out of the public spotlight Wednesday, giving his GOP colleagues little sense of what to expect.
“Everybody’s exhausted by the end of year stuff,” said one Senate GOP aide, who predicted that McConnell would try to override a veto of the coronavirus relief and omnibus spending package. “It’s a tough vote for half a dozen, up to a dozen Republicans but it’s not a tough vote."