Frustrations flared in the Senate during a rare New Years Day session as lawmakers battled for the fourth day in a row over a proposal to increase the amount of recently approved coronavirus relief checks.
Senate Republicans blocked a House-passed bill to increase the stimulus checks from $600 to $2,000 on Friday, as well as an attempt by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to set up votes on the House bill and a competing proposal from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that would link the money to a unrelated tech fight and creating a new elections commission.
The stalemate formally closes the door on the already unlikely chance that Congress could get an agreement to President Trump's desk before the end of the current Congress. The House has already left town for the remainder of the session, which ends Sunday morning, and the Senate took its last votes on Friday when it handed Trump his first veto override.
"That means today is the last chance to take up and pass the House bill to provide $2,000 checks to the American people. If the Senate does not take action today, $2,000 checks will not become law before the end of Congress and they will know that Leader McConnell and the Republican majority have prevented them from getting the checks," Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said from the floor.
He added that he believed McConnell had blocked the House bill from getting a vote "because he's afraid it will pass."
McConnell blocked the House-passed bill on three separate days this week and blasted the proposal on Friday as "socialism for rich people."
"While this huge new aid package takes effect, a bipartisan caucus in both chambers is not keen to let Speaker Pelosi and Sen. Sanders to have universal cash giveaways regardless of needs," he said.
The House passed legislation to increase the amount of the checks on Monday before leaving town until the start of the 117th session of Congress on Sunday.
Trump has urged Senate Republicans to pass legislation, but the idea garners fierce pushback from several Republicans.
Under the Senate's rules, any one senator can try to set up a vote or pass a bill, but any one senator can also object.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell's No. 2, blocked Schumer's request on Friday. Responding to Democrats, he dryly thanked them for having the Senate in session on New Year's Day — Sanders and others had slow-walked a defense bill unless they got a checks vote, forcing Friday's session.
"I know that's something that has always been on my bucket list, maybe not on top of the bucket list, but nevertheless, thank you for that opportunity," Thune said.
Thune argued that while Republicans are willing to look at additional aid, the House-passed bill was not "efficient" or "an effective way to spend the American taxpayer's dollars."
The checks fight resulted in an increasingly rare debate on the Senate floor, which is routinely empty or occupied by a senator giving a speech with a handful or no colleagues around.
Thune pointed to GOP concerns that under the House-passed bill higher income households who were not eligible for a payment under the $2.3 trillion coronavirus-government funding bill passed last month would be eligible because the House bill increased the amount of the checks but kept the same phase-out structure.
When Sanders asked if Thune had seen a Tax Policy Center analysis, which shows that a small percent of the checks would go to top earners, Thune responded that he hadn't but "I know math."
And when Thune said that all he was saying was Democrats shouldn't "misrepresent the facts," Sanders responded: "All I'm saying is that according to a very reputable tax organization center ... less than 1 percent of the benefits of the entire program go to the wealthiest people in this country."
Sanders also cut in as Thune rehashed a months-long stalemate over coronavirus relief, saying that he was reclaiming the Senate floor but that senators were having a "great debate."
"In one moment I am going to bring — because I know Republicans think I don't do much for them, that I'm not concerned about them. ... I am going to bring your bill to the floor to show you what a nice guy I am," Sanders added.
Sanders tried to schedule a vote on both the House-passed bill and McConnell's bill, but Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) objected, noting that he was doing so on behalf of Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who was delayed in getting to the floor.
Unlike other days this week, when the checks fight on the floor divided along party lines, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who teamed up with Sanders last month to push for another round of stimulus checks, joined Democrats on Friday.