Desperate Americans thought they could see a glimmer of hope on the horizon as Congress came to an agreement on a COVID-19 relief package late last week. After months of back and forth salvos and grandstanding, the Senate finally approved a stimulus deal and sent it to the president’s desk. Everyone expected the president to sign it, given the sensitive state of the senate run-off races in Georgia for Republicans. However, outgoing President Donald Trump surprised even his aides, blasting the package in a late night video address that once again threw the future of COVID relief into chaos and uncertainty. But some of what Trump spoke about wasn’t even in the COVID relief package, it was in the omnibus spending bill, sent to his desk at the same time. Was the president confused? Will he sign the deal? Most pressingly: when will struggling Americans see some relief in the form of direct payments?
The Battle for the COVID Relief Bill
The showdown over the COVID relief bill has turned into a comedy of errors of epic and woeful proportions. After the Democratic-majority House passed a hefty second bill all the way back in May to clear the path for more COVID relief after the success of the first one, things ground to a halt. Once the House bill reached Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, it was roundly rejected.
Since May, the Democrats and Republicans have been arguing back and forth over the price tag of a proposed second relief package. Democrats argued for higher direct payments to citizens, payments to struggling state and local governments, and a focus on small business relief. Republicans argued against a second round of direct payments, wanted protections for corporations – arguing that without relief for those big companies, jobs would continue to hemorrhage- and tax cuts to protect job creators. Democrats consistently proposed packages with a price tag of over $1 trillion, while Republicans drew the line in the sand at much lower.
As unemployment continued to skyrocket, the additional unemployment payments meant to help people expired, and the eviction moratorium neared an end, Washington still bickered. In the beginning of December, Americans were told not to expect another round of direct payments, a devastating blow to people facing a holiday season with no money. But Senators Bernie Sanders (IND) and Josh Hawley (REP) teamed up to add a provision to the COVID package that included direct payments.
Against the backdrop of these negotiations loomed the 2020 Election and related consequences. McConnell was determined to include provisions for the bill that would limit President-elect Joe Biden‘s ability to spend once he was sworn into office. But on the other hand, a Senate race in Georgia was putting pressure on the Republicans. Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Purdue were in neck-and-neck run-off races with Democrats Joe Ossoff an Raphael Warnock. The longer McConnell held off an agreement on a stimulus package, the further the Republican favor slipped in Georgia. The Georgia run-offs have the highest stakes imaginable, because they will determine to whom the balance of power will shift in the Senate.
So as voter favor began to wane, McConnell addressed Republican colleagues, saying that Loeffler and Purdue were, “getting hammered,” and the relief package must pass – and soon.
With Sanders and Hawley’s compromise proposal, direct payments were added back to the relief package, and Americans breathed a sigh of relief, if an annoyed one at the paltry price point. Reports say that, once Trump found out the relief payments would only be $600, he was drafting a memo to send to Republican senators, urging them to change the total to $2,000 per eligible adult. Aides intervened, concerned that Trumps intercession would cause the relief talks to go up in flames and topple Loeffler and Purdue’s chances in Georgia.
Finally, Democrats and Republicans agreed on the details of the relief package, and it was voted upon and approved. Then it all went sideways.
Trump Broadsides Allies
Once the bill reached Trump’s desk, pretty much everyone assumed it was a done deal. Democrats had been pushing for this package since May, so they were eager to see it approved. Republican stakes were higher because they needed the senate seats to oppose a Democratic president and house coalition.
But Trump decided he wasn’t playing the game. After influential advisors like Mark Meadows left for the holidays, and Congress had recessed for the year, Trump was able to finally get a good look at the bill, and he was not happy.
Late Tuesday, Trump tweeted a surprising video of himself blasting the bill. It came as a stunning broadside after members of Congress had recessed for the holiday, and left Republicans scrambling to figure out what might come next. Trump did not directly promise to veto, but he called the bill unacceptable and laid out a list of his own demands.
CNBC reports, “President Donald Trump, in a stunning nighttime tweet, called the $900 billion Covid relief bill passed by Congress an unsuitable ‘disgrace’ and urged lawmakers to make changes to the measure, including bigger direct payments to individuals and families.
Trump also suggested that his administration might be the ‘next administration,’ despite his loss to President-elect Joe Biden
…’I am asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000, or $4,000 for a couple,’ Trump said in the video.”
Trump then alarmingly added, “…that if Congress doesn’t deliver the relief package he wants, it will be left to the next administration.
‘And maybe that administration will be me, and we will get it done,’ he said.”
During his late-night video, Trump also blasted provisions he considered poorly spent money, including the founding of two museums and foreign aid. The problem is that the provisions Trump opposes are not actually part of the relief package. They belong to the omnibus spending bill that was sent to Trump at the same time. It remains unclear how Trump expects Congress to meet his demands to clear the provisions from the relief package they don’t belong to in the first place.
Without Trump signing the bill, the government will shut down on Monday, and struggling Americans will bereft of their paltry $600 relief checks.
What Happens Now?
Trump can do two things: he can approve the bill, or refuse to sign it. If he refuses to sign it, Republicans could get hammered in the January 6 run-off races in Georgia. Congressional Democrats have already signaled their enthusiasm for $2,000 per person payments, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi retweeting Trump’s video and responding, “Republicans repeatedly refused to say what amount the President wanted for direct checks. At last, the President has agreed to $2,000 — Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week by unanimous consent. Let’s do it!”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer added his voice of encouragement. Pelosi on Wednesday urged Trump to approve the government spending bill to keep the government open, and to encourage his colleagues to return to vote on the $2,000 checks.
This puts Republicans in a precarious position. While people were relieved to hear about the $600 payments, most people considered it an insultingly low number for people who were months behind on rent and facing bare bones Christmases. So it’s likely that the $2,000 payments will be very popular, a popularity Republicans need to capitalize on to win the Senate races in Georgia. But conceding to the demands also makes them look weak and disorganized, the kind of disunity Republicans have avoided displaying during the Trump administration.
It remains to be seen whether Trump will sign the bill or refuse, but Americans hoping to see checks in their accounts as early as next week, as Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin suggested they might, will have to hold on a little longer. Trump this morning returned to arguing about the election on Twitter, an election for which he has been certified the loser several times over. Desperate Americans worry that they are being forgotten.