President Trump’s push to boost the amount of stimulus checks from $600 to $2,000 appears to be dead in the water in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Trump is ramping up calls for Congress to increase the amount provided by a recently passed $2.3 trillion deal, an idea that quickly garnered support from Democratic leadership, some House Republicans and a growing number of Senate Republicans.
But a bill to increase the checks faces steep roadblocks — political, policy and procedural — that make it increasingly unlikely that lawmakers will get legislation to Trump’s desk by noon on Sunday, the deadline for the current Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) vowed that the Senate would not pass a stand-alone bill on checks, delivering a death knell to the already uphill chance that the House-passed bill could make it through Congress without significant changes.
"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. The Senate is not going to be bullied into rushing out more borrowed money into the hands of Democrats rich friends who don't need the help," McConnell said.
The GOP leader argued that the House-passed bill "does not align with what President Trump has suggested" and "has no realistic path to quickly pass the Senate."
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and McConnell blocked the House measure on Wednesday, the second day in a row it’s faced setbacks. McConnell blocked the same legislation twice on Tuesday, when Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) tried to pass it and when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) attempted to set up a vote.
McConnell has offered a competing measure that would tie an increase in the checks to removing a legal shield for tech companies and creating a commission to examine the 2020 elections. But that proposal is viewed as a non-starter for Democrats, underscoring that the GOP leader’s bill also is unable to pass the Senate.
“There is no other game in town beside the House bill. ...The House has recessed for the year. Any modification or addition, the House bill cannot become law before the end of this Congress,” Schumer said.
If the Senate passes anything besides the exact language of the House bill, the measure would need to bounce back across the Capitol and passed for a second time by the House, where lawmakers have already left town and aren’t expected to return until Sunday for the swearing in of the 117th Congress.
The stalemate all but guarantees that absent an eleventh-hour deal, the Senate is not likely to pass a checks proposal before noon on Sunday. If Congress fails to act before then, they’ll have to start all over.
The Senate was already going to need a deal just to get a checks vote because lawmakers are currently poised to debate a veto override of an unrelated defense bill until Saturday. Securing such an agreement, senators acknowledge, is highly unlikely.
Asked if a checks bill was not going to pass before Sunday’s deadline, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said: “I think under the circumstances, I think that’s likely true.”
“They’re not willing to consider any other pieces, any other provisions in the bill … and they want to spend the money on people who frankly haven’t suffered any financial losses during the pandemic,” he added.
Asked about potential political blowback against Republicans for preventing Americans from getting additional money, Cornyn added: “After we spent $4 trillion? No, not in any normal world.”
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s No. 2, added that it was difficult to see how the Senate could wrap up work on a checks proposal absent an agreement, which he acknowledged was unlikely.
“The Dems aren’t going to give us on [Section] 230 and I think on our side it’s probably hard to get consent on the checks,” he said.
The unraveling of the bipartisan push to increase the dollar amount for direct payments comes as the debate has sparked deep divisions among Senate Republicans, underscoring the difficulty supporters faced in getting a bill to Trump’s desk.
A handful of Senate Republicans have thrown their support behind the idea, including Sens. Kelly Loeffler (Ga.) and David Perdue (Ga.) who are fighting for their political lives and the fate of the battle for the Senate majority.
But several others are opposed to increasing the funding, or have concerns about the structure of the House-passed bill. Because the House bill increased the amount of the checks while retaining the same phase-out structure, higher income households could be eligible for payments.
“I think it’s a very inefficient way,” Thune said, saying he opposed increasing the amount. “If we want to have a discussion about what more we can, I think we can do that next year.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) argued that the recent bill passed by Congress was “targeted,” but “the problem with $2,000 is its not targeted. It goes to people who didn’t lose any money during this.”
Toomey, who has vowed to block any attempt to vote on a checks bill, argued on Wednesday that it would be irresponsible for Congress to greenlight more money, part of which would go to individuals who have not lost their job during the coronavirus pandemic.
“How does that make any sense at all?” he asked.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the party’s 2012 presidential candidate, pointed to the cost of increasing the checks.
“Someone’s got to pay for that,” Romney said. “We can’t just have free money. There’s got to be taxation. We have to pay interest on the debt.”
McConnell offered his competing proposal by arguing it aligns with what Trump is seeking. In his signing statement on Sunday, Trump said the Senate would "start the process for a vote that increases checks to $2,000,” in addition to repealing Section 230 and starting “an investigation into voter fraud."
But Republicans aren’t sold on tying Section 230 to the stimulus checks fight, especially after they left the tech battle out of the National Defense Authorization Act despite Trump’s demands.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) argued that the checks and Section 230 were “two separate issues.”
Cornyn, who is close with McConnell, said repealing the liability shield used by tech companies wasn’t “germane” to the debate over increasing the amount of the stimulus checks.