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Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing for Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, on Capitol Hill on May 5, 2020.Andrew Harnik / Pool via AFP - Getty Images

Targeting relief bill, Tom Cotton picks a self-defeating attack

Cotton is outraged by the idea of prison inmates benefiting from COVID relief. He twice voted for COVID relief bills that made no exceptions for inmates.


The Republican Party struggled for weeks to come up with a line of attack against the Democrats' COVID relief package, but when the American Rescue Plan reached the Senate floor, GOP members saw an opportunity.

Instead of trying to improve the legislation, Republican senators threw some carefully crafted amendments at it, in the hopes that they could be used in political ads next year. "It's all about TV commercials," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) conceded.

With this in mind, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) pushed a measure that would deny direct-aid benefits to Americans in prison. Democrats balked, explaining that this would only end up hurting convicts' families, and just like that, the seeds of a thousand attack ads were planted.

There is, however, one glaring problem, which CNN's Daniel Dale flagged:

Prisoners also received checks from both of the pandemic relief bills that then-President Donald Trump signed and Cotton voted for. Neither the bill Trump signed with Cotton's support in March nor the bill Trump signed with Cotton's support in December contained any language prohibiting prisoners from getting relief funding.

Yes, the Arkansas Republican who's now outraged by the idea of prison inmates benefiting from COVID relief is the same GOP senator who twice voted for COVID relief bills that made no exceptions for prison inmates.

(Similarly, Fox News ran an online headline yesterday that read, "FUNDING CONVICTED KILLERS. Democratic COVID bill gives mass murderers taxpayer money right out of your pocket." But again, the Trump-backed bills, approved by a Republican-led Senate, did the exact same thing.)

It's worth noting for context that the Trump administration, through the Internal Revenue Service, made an effort last year to restrict prisoners from benefiting from the 2020 COVID relief bills, but not surprisingly, that didn't work. The federal judge ruled that the IRS could not, after the fact, arbitrarily rewrite federal law.

If Congress wanted to exclude incarcerated Americans from benefits, it was up to lawmakers like Cotton and his colleagues to include that in their legislation. They didn't.

The result is a strange political dynamic. It's now inevitable that Republicans will run hours of hair-on-fire attack ads, accusing rascally Democrats of delivering generous checks to murderers, hoping that voters won't notice GOP lawmakers' and Donald Trump's record on the same issue.