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$600 or $2,000? Here’s what’s next after Congress approves stimulus checks and Trump, Democrats push for more

FILE - In this Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, file photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, speaks during a news conference with other Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington, while Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, listens at left. “There will be another major rescue package for the American people," McConnell said in announcing an agreement for a relief bill, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, that would total almost $900 billion. “It is packed with targeted policies to help struggling Americans who have already waited too long.”  (Nicholas Kamm)

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump is ending his tumultuous term in office not with a bang but with a grumble. After the commander-in-chief on Sunday reluctantly signed pandemic relief legislation he had delayed and called a “disgrace,” on Tuesday he continued pressing for bigger stimulus checks and other, unrelated demands while the Republican-controlled Senate prepared to override his veto of the annual defense bill.

After months of halting negotiations, Congress passed a roughly $900 billion coronavirus relief package Dec. 21 that included $600 direct payments to taxpayers who earn less than $75,000 annually, or $150,000 for couples, with an additional $600 for each child under 17. Those earning up to $87,000 – or $174,000 for couples – will receive reduced payments, with higher earners ineligible.

But after lawmakers passed the bill, Trump refused to sign it for nearly a week – delaying the stimulus checks, unemployment benefits and other critical aid – decrying the $600 payments his own White House negotiators proposed as miserly. He also criticized provisions in a long-delayed bill to fund the government, to which the relief package was attached, conflating the two separate pieces of legislation.

By calling for $2,000 payments to Americans, the outgoing president has put his party in an uncomfortable position, forcing GOP lawmakers who have for months resisted a large relief bill to either reverse course or make the politically dangerous move of blocking an extra $1,400 to taxpayers. In a leaked comment he later confirmed, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said Trump “threw (Republicans) under the bus.”

House Democrats, after calling for months for more aid, took Trump up on his offer and passed a separate bill Monday to increase the payments. GOP Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane, Dan Newhouse of Central Washington and Russ Fulcher of North Idaho all opposed the bill, which would increase the total cost of the relief package to more than $1.3 trillion.

In a statement, McMorris Rodgers said she could not support the higher payments after already backing relief packages in March and December and “believe(s) assistance should be more targeted.”

“This year, I have supported trillions in emergency relief and assistance for those hurt by the COVID-19 crisis and resulting economic shutdowns,” she said. “That includes this month’s bipartisan agreement with increased unemployment assistance, aid to farmers and ranchers, reimbursements for our health care providers, support for small businesses and their employees, and additional direct payments to Eastern Washington families.”

Fulcher also took issue with the high cost and less targeted nature of Trump’s proposal, which would cost an extra $464 billion.

“If the goal of this bill is to deliver relief to people facing financial hardship caused by COVID-19, it’s doing it all wrong,” he said in a statement. “For instance, this blanket administration of taxpayer funds is going to millions of government workers and private sector employees, who never lost their job or experienced a pay cut throughout this pandemic.”

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a southwest Washington Republican, voted in favor. In an email, spokesman Craig Wheeler said Herrera Beutler supported increasing the payments because, while imperfect, “they’re the quickest way to get aid out to those who are struggling,” and because the bill makes college students eligible as dependents for payments approved in March.

After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blocked an attempt by Senate Democrats on Tuesday to approve the $2,000 payments, Trump tweeted, “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!”

That leaves Senate Republicans in a tough spot, none more so than Georgia Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, who are desperate to survive runoff elections next week that will decide control of the Senate. Both Perdue and Loeffler bucked McConnell and sided with Trump on Tuesday, calling for $2,000 payments.

Spokespeople for Idaho GOP Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch said neither senator had taken a stance on the increased payments. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, Washington Democrats, have both called for $2,000 checks.

“Millions of Americans are struggling to make ends meet as we continue to fight this pandemic,” Cantwell said in a statement. “I urge Leader McConnell to hold a vote on the House-passed legislation that will put $2,000 into people’s pockets to provide for basic needs such as rent, utilities, and groceries.”

Trump has also called on Congress to act on his unproven claims that the election was rigged and to repeal an unrelated law that shields tech companies from lawsuits, an unmet demand that caused the president to block the annual defense funding bill.

Trump on Dec. 23 vetoed the defense bill – bipartisan legislation that funds the military and has passed in 60 consecutive years – after demanding lawmakers add language to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a provision that lets social media companies moderate content on their platforms. He also objected to a bipartisan provision in the bill to rename military bases that honor Confederate officers.

A two-thirds vote in both chambers is needed to overturn a presidential veto. The House voted Monday to override by a vote of 322 to 87. McMorris Rodgers, Newhouse and Herrera Beutler were in the majority, while Fulcher voted no.

In the Senate, which voted overwhelmingly to approve the defense bill Dec. 11, a vote to override the president’s veto was scheduled for Wednesday. But Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., seizing on the leverage Trump has handed to progressives, threatened Monday to delay the veto override vote unless McConnell allows a vote on the $2,000 payments.

In a statement released late Tuesday, the Treasury Department said the $600 payments would begin to arrive via direct deposit as soon as Tuesday night and continue into next week. Checks will be automatically mailed to taxpayers who don’t have direct deposit information on file with the Internal Revenue Service.

“Treasury and the IRS are working with unprecedented speed to issue a second round of Economic Impact Payments to eligible Americans and their families,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in the statement.

The relief bill lawmakers passed last week includes $300 per week in extra unemployment payments for 11 weeks – although the president’s week-long delay may cut that to 10 weeks – half of the amount Congress authorized from March through July. Critics of stimulus checks argue increasing those jobless benefits is a more targeted way to get help to those who need it most and stimulate the economy.

Mark Mazur, director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said direct payments can effectively reach a broad range of households and boost consumer spending, but those who are employed are more likely to save that money rather than spend it.

“It all depends what your goal is,” Mazur said. “If your goal is to reach people who are unable to work because of the restrictions that are in place as a result of the pandemic … then unemployment benefits are the more targeted way to go.”

But Mazur, who served as assistant secretary for tax policy at the Treasury Department from 2012 to 2017, said direct payments are an important part of the relief package especially because they reach people in need who don’t qualify for jobless aid.

“There are people who have just low incomes for a variety of other reasons who are not eligible for unemployment benefits,” he said, “whether because of the way their state systems are set up or because they haven’t been in the labor force recently. Those households could benefit more from the direct payments.”

Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, McConnell declined to say whether he supported Trump and the Democrats’ call for $2,000 payments but indicated he would link the president’s three demands in a single bill. He introduced legislation later in the day that would increase the stimulus payments, repeal the liability shield Trump opposes and establish a bipartisan commission to investigate election fraud.

Democrats and some Republicans are certain to oppose that bill, and the complex saga of Trump’s defense bill veto and last-ditch demands is likely to drag on until Congress ends its current session at the end of the week. The 117th Congress will convene Jan. 3.