Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked Democrats’ attempt Tuesday to more than triple COVID-19 relief checks to $2,000, and moved to link any increase — which has the backing of President Trump — with a repeal of liability protections for Big Tech, leading Democrats to delay action on a major defense bill.
As Mr. McConnell maneuvered, the two Georgia Republicans who face runoff elections next week that will determine control of the Senate in 2021 also announced they now support the bigger relief payments in the wake of Mr. Trump’s endorsement.
Mr. McConnell stopped a proposal by Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer to vote quickly on increasing the relief checks from $600, despite Mr. Trump’s warning that the Senate must boost the payments “unless Republicans have a death wish.”
With the Senate GOP divided on the relief money, the Kentucky Republican said he would link any action on the direct payments with two other last-minute demands from the president: to remove liability protections social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter enjoy for the content on their sites, and to investigate election integrity in the wake of the angry aftermath to the November elections.
“Those are the three important subjects the president has linked together,” Mr. McConnell said on the Senate floor. “This week the Senate will begin a process to bring these three priorities into focus.”
The $600 relief checks, mostly targeting middle- and lower-income Americans, are already in the $900 billion economic package Mr. Trump reluctantly signed over the weekend, and Mr. McConnell’s move would give lawmakers little time to negotiate some big questions as the legislative clock runs down.
Later in the day, Mr. McConnell moved for the Senate to consider legislation that would raise the stimulus payments and repeal the tech liability shield, known as Section 230, from the Communications Decency Act. The president and Republicans have long blamed companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook of bias against conservatives, and say the firms should no longer enjoy the law’s protection from lawsuits for how they police content on their platforms.
Democrats called Mr. McConnell’s vague promises a “poison pill” designed to doom the larger stimulus payments. With the House finished for the year, any changes to a House-passed provision Monday increasing the stimulus checks would effectively kill the proposal.
Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, said tying the stimulus checks to a proposal on internet liability “is an invitation for this entire effort to fall apart.”
The dispute threatened to complicate Senate action to override the president’s veto of the $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a major annual policy measure that includes pay raises for troops, spending on major arms systems and a host of policy mandates for the Pentagon. Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, said he will object to voting on the NDAA until Mr. McConnell allows a vote on the checks.
“The working class of this country today faces more economic desperation than any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s,” Mr. Sanders said. “Working families need help now — not next year, but right now.”
Some Republicans, including Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, agreed with Mr. Sanders’ tactic.
“I will not consent to a vote on the bad defense bill — which should stay vetoed — unless the Senate votes on [$2,000 in COVID] relief for working people,” Mr. Hawley tweeted.
The House approved the $2,000 relief checks on Monday, after Mr. Trump called for the higher payments on top of a $900 billion coronavirus aid package that he signed into law. The lower $600 amount had been floated by Mr. Trump’s own Treasury Secretary Stephen T. Mnuchin over months of haggling with Hill leaders, before Mr. Trump abruptly demanded the higher figure earlier this month.
Mr. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Americans are reeling from the pandemic and need the extra aid urgently. The money could provide an economic boost just as the Biden administration is settling into office.
President-elect Joseph R. Biden has backed the higher $2,000 figure, and has said it merely represents a “down payment” on the economic relief he plans to propose after he is sworn in.
“Right now, they are facing their hardest and their darkest days,” Mr. Schumer said. “Tens of millions are struggling to put food on the table, keep a roof over their heads … $2,000 stimulus checks could mean the difference between American families having groceries for a few extra weeks or going hungry, the difference between paying the rent or being kicked out of your home.”
The Treasury Department has said the $600 payments will start going out as soon as this week. If Congress approves the increase to $2,000, additional checks of $1,400 would be added to the original sum.
The popularity of the larger amounts was reflected in the last-minute conversions of Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, both of whom announced their unqualified support on Tuesday for the $2,000 checks. Both lawmakers face runoff elections on Tuesday against Democratic opponents who had already come out in support of the higher payments.
“I support this push for $2,000 in direct relief for the American people,” Mr. Perdue said.
Mr. Trump is scheduled to campaign for Mr. Perdue and Ms. Loeffler in Georgia on Monday. Their elections will determine which party controls the Senate next year.
It was Senate Republicans who had balked at the higher payouts earlier this year, in part to keep the overall relief bill — which includes extended unemployment benefits and money for reopening schools, vaccine distributions, small businesses and others — below the $1 trillion price tag.
But the president reiterated on Tuesday that the GOP must raise the stimulus payments, even as he also called on lawmakers to uphold his veto of the defense bill, repeal Section 230 and address alleged election fraud.
“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!” the president tweeted from his Mar-a-Lago resort in southern Florida. “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!”
Mr. Trump has targeted Mr. McConnell over his unwillingness to support his claim the election was stolen, and his long-shot bid to overturn the results certifying Mr. Biden as the winner.
Mr. Perdue and Ms. Loeffler have been eager to display their loyalty to Mr. Trump and his supporters, but prior to Tuesday had been far less enthusiastic about spelling out where they stand on his calls for bigger checks.
Democratic opponents Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock had seized on the opening, holding it up as proof the two multimillionaire GOP candidates — Ms. Loeffler is reportedly one of the wealthiest members of Congress — are out of touch with the struggles facing Georgia’s working class.
Veto vote in question
The stimulus dispute is delaying, likely until Thursday, a Senate vote to override a veto from Mr. Trump for the first time in his presidency.
Last week, Mr. Trump vetoed the NDAA, objecting to a mandate to strip U.S. military bases of names honoring Confederate figures and new limitations of the president’s right to draw down troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere. He also complained that it lacked the repeal of Section 230 he had demanded.
But some of Mr. Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill have called for the NDAA to be enacted over his objections, amid growing support among GOP senators to override the veto and pass a bill that has historically enjoyed broad bipartisan support.
“I was disappointed last week when President Trump vetoed the NDAA,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “I’m here today because we have to pass the NDAA. This would be the 60th year in a row we have the NDAA and it’s necessary to have it.”
Mr. McConnell moved to set up a final vote to override Mr. Trump’s veto schedule for Wednesday. But with some lawmakers threatening to delay the vote until the Senate votes on increasing the relief checks, action on the NDAA could be postponed until New Year’s Day. The lame-duck lawmakers face a hard deadline as the new Congress will be sworn in on Sunday.
The Senate approved the NDAA earlier this month with far more than a two-thirds majority. Although some Republicans have hinted that they will vote to sustain Mr. Trump’s veto, it is anticipated that lawmakers are poised to pass the veto-override with enough backing.
Mr. Trump resorted to Twitter as well Monday to castigate “weak and tired” GOP leaders for failing to support his veto, while citing a litany of what he considered shortcoming in the bill.
“A disgraceful act of cowardice and total submission by weak people to Big Tech,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “Negotiate a better bill, or get better leaders, now!”
But the $740.5 billion bill includes a number of attractive features for lawmakers, including a 3% troop pay raise, funding for new weapons systems in districts across the country, new policies to deter China and Russia, and increases in housing protections and standards for military families.
Both Mr. Perdue and Ms. Loeffler were among the 84 senators who supported the bill the first time around.
“[F]or the brave men and women of the United States Armed Forces, failure is not an option,” Mr. McConnell said. “So when it is our turn in Congress to have their backs, failure is not an option here either.”