WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appeared to deliver a political death blow to a last-minute push to authorize $2,000 stimulus checks for most Americans, arguing that he would not be “bullied” into action despite pressure from President Donald Trump, congressional Democrats and even some Republicans for the more generous payments.
With days left on the legislative calendar — and significant business pending on the Senate floor — McConnell said on Wednesday that senators would not vote on a House-passed stimulus bill, rendering nearly it impossible for lawmakers to broker a compromise before the end of the year.
This stance threatened to carry broad political repercussions, coming a day after Trump said it would be a "death wish" for Republicans if they did not boost stimulus payments beyond the $600 lawmakers authorized as part of a broader, $900 billion relief package signed into law earlier this week.
“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 on the Senate floor.
In addition to Trump and most Democrats, a growing number of Senate Republicans had called for the larger payments. That includes Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, the two Georgia Republicans who face reelection votes next week.
McConnell said a House-passed bill authorizing the $2,000 checks had "no realistic path to quickly pass the Senate." Instead, he said he would bundle the $2,000 checks into a broader bill that included curbs on technology companies as well as an effort to study the 2020 election, nodding to complaints raised by Trump about his election loss. Democrats said such a package had no chance of passing, and they accused McConnell of deliberately seeking to kill the stimulus payments.
"In blocking it, they are in denial of the hardship the American people are experiencing now, health wise, financially, and every way," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at a news conference.
McConnell's move could be one of his last as majority leader, pending the outcome of the Georgia special election next week. If Democrats capture both seats, they will seize control of the Senate chamber. After he spoke Wednesday afternoon, several other Republicans rushed to backstop McConnell's strategy, suggesting that he had support from several members of his party even as others wanted to vote with Democrats on the larger checks.
"We are not in the same situation we were in back in March," said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., contending that the economy had recovered markedly since the early days of the pandemic.
On Sunday, Trump signed into law a $900 billion economic relief package that would send $600 stimulus checks to more than 100 million Americans. A day later, Democrats passed another bill, supported by Trump, that would add $1,400 to those payments. Trump earlier on Wednesday took to Twitter to emphasize his position: "$2000 ASAP!"
But McConnell said the House-passed measure would greatly inflate the U.S. debt and benefit some families who are not in need of financial assistance. Some of the people who would qualify for the payments belong to households earning up to $300,000, the GOP leader said, adding that many of them had not been disadvantaged by the pandemic.
Democrats vehemently oppose conflating the stimulus checks with the technology curbs or voting issues, saying McConnell is bundling the things together in hopes of scuttling any deal. Even some Republican lawmakers have questioned the wisdom of marrying these provisions into a single bill. But McConnell on Wednesday held firm that they would be considered together.
"The Senate is not going to split apart the three issues Trump linked together just because Democrats are afraid to address two of them," McConnell said.
With the process unraveling in the Senate, Democratic leaders on Wednesday still urged McConnell to at least bring the House bill to the Senate floor for a vote, arguing that a weakening economy and a raging pandemic are creating enormous hardship for millions of Americans. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who supports sending the $2,000 checks, said on Tuesday that there were at least 60 votes in the Senate to pass the measure, though the number of lawmakers who have publicly backed the idea appears to be slightly less than that.
"At the very least, the Senate deserves the opportunity for an up-or-down vote," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the floor while he criticized McConnell.
Schumer then tried for a second time this week to move the House's stimulus proposal, but McConnell immediately blocked it. Incensed, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., then took aim at McConnell for allegedly ignoring the needs of his poorest constituents in opposing the additional aid.
"All we are asking for is a vote. What is the problem?" Sanders said before making his own ill-fated attempt to hold a vote Thursday, to which Republicans objected. "If you want to vote against $2,000 checks for your state, vote against it."
The standoff probably will kill any prospect for a last-minute deal around additional stimulus aid because four days remain on the legislative calendar before the House and the Senate must adjourn. The timeline is made all the more complicated as the Senate seeks to complete its work on the unrelated, unresolved matter of authorizing the Pentagon's operations.
Trump vetoed an earlier version of the defense bill, but the Senate appears to have enough votes to join the House and override the veto. Still, that process could subsume much of the Senate's remaining minutes, after Sanders objected to its speedy consideration — in part to force a vote on stimulus checks that McConnell has not allowed.
Sanders's protest cannot upset the course of the defense bill, nor does doing so appear to be his objective. He acknowledged as much in a floor speech Wednesday, when he asked the Senate to vote on the House's bill to increase stimulus checks to $2,000 and follow that with a vote to override the president's defense-bill veto. His entreaties were unsuccessful after Toomey, who was waiting on the floor, objected to Sanders's proposal, arguing that the payments were no longer necessary because the economy was in "recovery mode."
If no deal is made on increased stimulus payments, Sanders probably will continue to object to the Senate proceeding apace with the defense bill alone — forcing leaders to exhaust every procedural safeguard against a potential filibuster of the legislation and prolonging the veto override process. Such procedural roadblocks cannot be thrown up indefinitely. Even with Sanders's objections, the Senate is on course to vote on an intermediary step of the defense bill Friday. Depending on what time of day that vote takes place, a vote to override the president's veto would take place either late Saturday or early Sunday.