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Senate Democrats Could Have Defied Mitch McConnell on $2,000 Checks. They Chose Not to.

Democrats and Beltway pundits helped Mitch McConnell undermine Bernie Sanders’s push for direct aid to millions of Americans facing eviction, starvation, and bankruptcy through $2,000 checks. Even for a party that is constantly disappointing, Democrats’ complete capitulation to McConnell and austerity ideology was shockingly pathetic.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks at a press conference in Washington, DC in December. (Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images)

It was always a possibility that Democrats would get too scared to halt a major Pentagon bill in order to help millions of Americans get $2,000 survival checks — in fact, as we wrote earlier this week, it was very likely that they would back down the moment any bad-faith critic so much as waved a flag and said “support the troops.”

And capitulation became even more likely when Clinton-era Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, corporate Democratic pundits, and billionaire-owned elite media outlets began parroting a series of eerily similar let-them-eat-cake talking points against the survival checks — which McConnell promptly used to bludgeon proponents of the bipartisan initiative.

But even appreciating all of this — and also knowing that many Democratic leaders still cling to an outdated austerity ideology — the sheer scale of Wednesday’s Democratic surrender was truly a sight to behold. And it probably ended the chance for more immediate aid to millions of Americans facing eviction, starvation, and bankruptcy.

The day began with Sen. Bernie Sanders following through on his promise to deny unanimous consent for the Senate to advance a $740 billion defense authorization bill, until Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell allows an up-or-down vote on legislation that would send $2,000 survival checks to individuals making less than $75,000 and couples making less than $150,000.

Sanders’s move forced McConnell to ask the Senate to pass a formal motion to proceed on the defense bill, which would let Republicans move forward on the Pentagon priority without a vote on the $2,000 checks. The motion created the moment in which Democrats could have stood their ground and cornered the GOP leader.

Instead, as Republicans saber rattled about the need to pass the defense bill, forty-one Democrats obediently voted with McConnell, allowing him to move the defense bill forward without a vote on the checks. That included “yes” votes from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris, the lead sponsor on a bill to give Americans monthly $2,000 checks during the pandemic. One day before her vote to help McConnell, Harris had called on the Republican leader to hold a vote on her legislation.

Only six members of the Senate Democratic Caucus mustered the courage to vote against McConnell’s maneuver — Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Chris Van Hollen, Jeff Merkley, Ed Markey, and Ron Wyden. Democratic senators in fact provided the majority of the votes for the measure that lets the defense bill proceed without a vote on the $2,000 checks.

It was called a motion to proceed, but it really was a motion demanding Democrats concede — and they instantly obliged.

It Didn’t Have to Go This Way

Had most Senate Democrats voted against that motion, they might have had a chance to deny McConnell and stall the process — after all, five Republicans also voted against the measure, including Missouri’s Josh Hawley, who has pushed the survival checks with Sanders.

Republican president Donald Trump has called for Congress to pass the $2,000 checks, but Georgia’s Republican senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue — who only this week started pretending they support the direct aid — were nowhere to be found. They skipped the vote, effectively refusing to use their power to deliver relief to the roughly two-thirds of Georgia households who would benefit from the checks.

To be sure, there may still be some opportunities for procedural delays in the final days of the Senate session.

It is also theoretically possible that the fluid dynamics of the closely contested Georgia Senate races — where the Democratic candidates are campaigning for the $2,000 checks — may compel McConnell to relent and allow a vote on the direct aid, if he suddenly feels it is necessary to hold onto his job as majority leader.

So yes, Sanders’s pledge to lock the gates and prevent the Senate from going home for the New Year’s holiday is valuable, in the sense that playing for time holds out the chance for unforeseen events to shift the dynamics.

But unless there is some game-changing event after Wednesday, McConnell was almost certainly correct when he said the $2,000 checks initiative now has “no realistic path to quickly pass the Senate.”

And McConnell may feel even less pressure to approve bigger direct payments in the future without a Republican president publicly demanding them.

Liberal Economists and Pundits Gave McConnell His Talking Points

McConnell’s crusade to stop direct aid was abetted not only by Senate Democrats’ surrender, but also by media elites who loyally represent the party’s corporate wing and who began promoting canned talking points to undermine the direct aid.

First came a barrage of attacks on the $2,000 checks initiative from Summers, a former hedge fund executive who as President Barack Obama’s national economic director stymied the push for more stimulus after the 2008 financial crisis.

Then the New York TimesPaul Krugman pretended the wildly popular initiative is “divisive” and said “the economics aren’t very good.” Timesman Tom Friedman, who married into a real estate empire, called the idea “crazy” and fretted that checks might go to “people who don’t need the help.” The minions of billionaire Michael Bloomberg joined in with a house editorial demanding Congress block the checks.

Meanwhile, only weeks after the Washington Post news page told the harrowing tales of rising poverty and starvation in America, the paper’s editorial board argued against stimulus by insisting that “the economy has healed significantly.”

The Post — which is owned by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos — argued against the $2,000 checks by saying it is unjust that some rich people might in theory end up benefiting from the proposal (this, from the editorial board that still vociferously defends the 2008 Wall Street bailout that financed bonuses for wealthy bank executives who destroyed the global economy). The Post also borrowed spin from Summers, arguing that people probably won’t use the money because “restaurants are closed and air travel limited.”

This isn’t even close to true: Indoor dining was recently shut down in New York City and DC, but restaurants are fully open in most states, and an unfortunate number of people are still flying.

All of this noise was quickly weaponized by McConnell, who in a Senate floor speech directly cited Summers and the Post as justification to stop the $2,000 checks to the two-thirds of households in his own state who would benefit.

“The liberal economist Larry Summers, President Clinton’s Treasury Secretary and President Obama’s NEC director says, ‘There’s no good economic argument for universal $2,000 checks at this moment.’” McConnell said, adding: “Even the liberal Washington Post today is laughing at the political left demanding more huge giveaways with no relationship to actual need.”

Then he concluded by parroting the pundits, declaring: “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 is worth an estimated $34 million.

McConnell’s absurd attempt to pretend he doesn’t want to help the rich was boosted by Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who also cited the Post editorial and then insisted the legislation to give $2,000 checks to individuals making less than $75,000 “is about helping millionaires and billionaires.”

Neither McConnell nor Cornyn even attempted to substantiate their allegations — but they didn’t have to. Democrats were already in the process of folding, and corporate media was more than happy to run interference.

In the end, millions of Americans struggling to survive will likely be left with just a one-time $600 check, as eighty US senators rubber stamp a bloated defense bill to show they support the troops — and then tell the poor to eat a roll call vote.