Donald Trump on Tuesday threatened to veto emergency stimulus legislation unless lawmakers increased direct payments to millions of families facing the prospect of eviction, loss of health insurance, unemployment, and starvation. Lawmakers had settled on meager, onetime $600 checks, but the president demanded $2,000 payments — a proposal that was championed months ago by congressional progressives but that was ignored by both parties’ legislative leaders.
The declaration from the GOP president follows his other recent statements in support of bigger checks. The entire situation shows that Joe Biden and Democratic congressional leaders either could have driven a much tougher bargain in their negotiations over new COVID-19 relief legislation with Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell — or they actually deliberately prioritized austerity and didn’t want a bigger spending package in the first place.
Luckily for Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer — and for millions of people who need help — Trump is giving them one last chance to do the right thing and back a bolder version of the $1,200 direct payment proposal that Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) have been pushing from the beginning of this most recent round of negotiations.
In fact, seven months ago Sanders joined Sens. Kamala Harris, Ed Markey, and Kirsten Gillibrand in introducing a bill to provide monthly $2,000 checks to individuals until the pandemic is over. (That’s not surprising, given that Sanders and the Congressional Progressive Caucus he led were the original authors of the first stimulus check of the modern era, way back in 2001.)
The question now: Will Pelosi, Schumer, and Biden do everything in their power to call Trump’s bluff and force a vote to increase the $600 checks to $2,000?
Pelosi Feels the Heat, but May Be Trying to Hedge
Pelosi clearly feels the heat — she is suddenly pretending she’s always been ready to take Trump up on his offer to support $2,000 survival checks, even though prior to yesterday, she had never tried to triangulate Trump against McConnell on the issue. Earlier this month, she supported a deal that did not include checks at all, and just yesterday she insisted that $600 checks were “significant.”
Indeed, the $2,000 is a new ask for Democratic leaders — progressive lawmakers had been pushing it for months, but Pelosi’s much-touted Heroes Act only asked for $1,200 onetime, means-tested checks.
Regardless, the Democratic House speaker is now finally saying she wants a vote to amend the stimulus bill to increase the small $600 checks to $2,000 — and such an amendment has already been written by Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.
Republicans repeatedly refused to say what amount the President wanted for direct checks. At last, the President has agreed to $2,000 — Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week by unanimous consent. Let’s do it! https://t.co/Th4sztrpLV
— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) December 23, 2020
However, Pelosi’s statement of support includes a bit of a hedge. She says she wants to bring it up by unanimous consent — a process that gives any single member of the House the ability to raise an objection and block it. That could let her pretend she tried to force a vote, but was thwarted by a Republican dissenter. But she is House speaker — there are ways for her to truly force a vote.
As the American Prospect’s David Dayen notes, Pelosi could, for instance, do it under a separate process of suspending the rules which would mean that to stop it, “140 Republicans have to buck Trump and deny a cash lump-sum payout to the American people.”
In the Senate, Schumer can start demanding unanimous consent to pass the $2,000 check legislation every day the body is in session — a process that would have the added benefit of putting the heat on Georgia incumbent Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue to pick which side they are on.
As for Biden, he was embarrassingly muted when a proposal for $1,200 checks was a live option — his transition team seemed far more enthusiastic about protecting a program that helped BlackRock than it did about immediately securing direct aid for families. In fact, Biden also signaled his support for the original checkless deal earlier this month.
Now, Biden has a rare chance to show some leadership, put the heat on McConnell, and actually extract more money from him to help the public. People need help now, and it won’t be any easier to get big spending bills through a McConnell-led Senate if Democrats don’t win the two Georgia Senate races next month.
Either way, the country’s experience with the first round of support shows that increasing direct payments now could immediately reduce poverty. It could also help build the case for new rounds of bigger checks down the line.
Democrats Have the Chance to Actually Make the Bill Better
The whole situation could be a big winner for Democrats and show they actually care about human beings. It gives them a high-profile moment to appear as if they care about improving the grotesque spending package that’s currently on the table.
Americans are in breadlines, and yet the current omnibus legislation skimps on direct aid to millions of people — while offering billions of dollars’ worth of tax breaks for racehorse owners, landlords, NASCAR, and corporate executives’ three-martini lunches.
The current bill spends only $166 billion on survival checks, while devoting $200 billion to new tax breaks for the rich. It exempts business expenses under the Paycheck Protection Program from taxes, while taxing workers’ jobless benefits and ending a paid coronavirus sick leave mandate.
It offers just $25 billion in rental assistance, at a moment when an estimated fourteen million American households are in danger of eviction and will owe roughly $70 billion in unpaid rental and utility debt by January, according to Moody’s Analytics’ Mark Zandi. The bill includes a separate retroactive tax break for landlords projected to cost $3 billion — which probably doesn’t help people pay their rent.
And as the legislation excludes direct aid to states and cities, it is wrapped in an omnibus package that spends roughly $700 billion on security spending that includes funding for new weapons systems; Trump’s Space Force; border wall construction; and military aid to countries such as Egypt, Israel, and Jordan.
Trump has stumbled and blustered his way into giving Democrats a chance to make this legislation significantly better — and to also go on offense against McConnell and against the Georgia Republican incumbents they need to defeat in order to win the Senate.
The opportunity is right there for them. Now they need to do what’s right.