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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer before a memorial service for Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 24, 2019.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer before a memorial service for Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 24, 2019.Erin Schaff / AP file

McConnell blocks $2,000 aid checks, but the fight's far from over

House Dems passed a bill to increase direct-aid payments to $2,000. Trump is on board. The final piece of the puzzle is the Republican-led Senate.


House Democrats passed a bill yesterday to increase direct-aid payments to $2,000. Donald Trump has repeatedly endorsed the idea. The final piece of the puzzle is the Republican-led Senate, where the process got underway today with developments that proponents of the relief measure probably didn't like.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday shot down a Democratic bid to answer President Donald Trump's call for increased direct coronavirus payments to Americans, but the measure's ultimate fate in the GOP-controlled chamber is unclear. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., moved to pass the bill by unanimous consent, which meant it would advance if no other senator objected. But McConnell quickly objected to the measure, which would have increased the size of the checks to $2,000 from $600.

While this was discouraging for advocates of the expanded payments, everyone involved in the process agrees that it was just the first round of many.

As the fight moves forward, here are the questions to keep in mind:

Are there enough Senate Republicans to give the idea a realistic chance of success? Up until very recently, the answer was no. Even if every member of the Senate Democratic conference supported the $2,000 checks, they'd need 12 GOP senators to endorse the plan, and there was little reason to think those votes existed.

That, however, is starting to change. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) expressed some interest in the proposal yesterday, and Sen. Fischer (R-Neb.) made similar comments this morning. Soon after, Georgia's Republican incumbents -- Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue -- both endorsed the increased aid, at least opening the door to the possibility of success.

Will McConnell load the bill with poison pills? The bill passed in the House yesterday with at least some bipartisan support was clean and simple: increase the direct-aid checks from $600 to $2,000. Senate GOP leaders, however, expressed a willingness today to add unrelated provisions related to liability shields for tech companies (the "Section 230" debate) and an investigation into non-existent election "fraud."

The idea, obviously, would be to create an untenable situation on purpose: if Dems wanted the increased aid to Americans, they'd have to play along with Trump's anti-tech-company crusade and with the Republicans' anti-election crusade. If Dems -- in the Senate and/or in the House -- were to balk, McConnell would argue, "We were going to approve the $2,000 checks, but Democrats ended up killing the proposal they said they supported."

Senate Republicans could prevent McConnell from adding these poison-pill provisions, but there's nothing to suggest they would.

What is Trump prepared to do? In theory, if the outgoing president were genuinely interested in larger direct-aid payments, he could twist some Senate Republicans' arms and make it happen. This wouldn't even be especially difficult. In recent days, however, Trump has been principally focused on his anti-election conspiracy theories and his golf game.

That said, the president tweeted this afternoon, "Unless Republicans have a death wish, and it is also the right thing to do, they must approve the $2000 payments ASAP. $600 IS NOT ENOUGH! Also, get rid of Section 230 - Don't let Big Tech steal our Country, and don't let the Democrats steal the Presidential Election. Get tough!"

The second half of this is as important as the first: Trump appears to be endorsing McConnell's strategy of tying the three unrelated elements -- direct aid, Section 230, and lies about the election -- together into one bill, and then daring Democrats to say no.

What are Senate Democrats' options? Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is preparing to delay the process and filibuster a pending military package in order to keep the pressure on the Senate's GOP majority, but McConnell controls the floor and Senate Dems have limited leverage and limited options. For more on the Vermont senator's strategy, tune in to the show tonight: Sanders is scheduled to talk with Ali Velshi about his efforts.

What will Loeffler and Perdue do? The Georgia Republican incumbents are eager to leave Capitol Hill and campaign in their home state, especially since their runoff elections are a week from today. They've already come around on $2,000 checks -- endorsing their opponents' position -- but the longer the Senate debates this, the less they'll be in Georgia in the days leading up to Election Day.

What about House Dems? I'm skeptical Senate Dems would accept McConnell's poison pills, but even if they did, there's the other chamber to consider. The House passed a clean bill with no extraneous measures, and if Senate Republicans clutter up the direct-aid bill with unrelated nonsense, there's no reason to assume House Democrats would go along. In fact, it would set the stage for legislative ping-pong, with the Senate adding the extraneous measures, the House taking them out, the Senate putting them back in, and so on as the clock winds down.

How much time is left? In case this isn't obvious, the current Congress officially ends this weekend, and whatever bills remain unresolved will wither on the vine. That leaves lawmakers a limited window to complete work on overriding Trump's veto of funding for the military and trying to pass the direct-aid proposal.

Watch this space.