Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday blocked Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's attempt to unanimously pass a bill to increase direct payments in the year-end coronavirus relief package to $2,000.
The Kentucky Republican later Tuesday introduced a bill that would boost the size of the checks to $2,000 from $600, repeal Section 230 legal liability protections for internet platforms and create a commission to study election issues. The bill would meet all of President Donald Trump's recent demands, which are unrelated, but would not get Democratic support and become law.
Through the bill, Republicans would both avoid the act of actually passing $2,000 payments but allow GOP senators running for reelection in Georgia's Jan. 5 runoffs to express support for Trump's priorities.
In a statement Tuesday, Schumer said if McConnell "tries loading up" the bill "with unrelated, partisan provisions that will do absolutely nothing to help struggling families across the country," larger direct payments would not become law.
"Any move like this by Sen. McConnell would be a blatant attempt to deprive Americans of a $2,000 survival check," he said.
McConnell faces pressure to act after the House — with nearly all Democrats and a few dozen Republicans on board — voted Monday to increase the cash deposits to $2,000 from $600. Senate Republicans wary of spending more on pandemic aid are looking for a way to both meet the demands of a president who called the year-end coronavirus relief and funding bill a disgrace and hold on to their majority during races overshadowed by the crisis.
McConnell brought the chamber back this week with one major goal: overriding Trump's veto of the annual National Defense Authorization Act. He has not yet committed to bringing the $2,000 payment bill up for a vote, and it is unclear now how one would take shape.
Still, Democrats tried to use the limited tools at their disposal to force a vote. Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, McConnell said he planned to set up a Wednesday vote on the veto override.
He outlined three priorities Trump said he wanted Congress to address when he signed the coronavirus relief and government spending bill into law Sunday: larger direct payments, Section 230 legal liability protections for internet platforms and unfounded concerns about widespread election fraud. He said that "this week, the Senate will begin a process to bring these three priorities into focus."
Schumer then called for the Senate to vote on both the defense bill veto override and the $2,000 payments and "let the chips fall where they may." When he asked for unanimous consent to increase the size of the checks, McConnell objected.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., then requested a vote on the larger payments after Wednesday's vote on the National Defense Authorization Act. McConnell again objected. Then, Sanders followed through on his threat to delay consideration of the veto override by objecting to a Wednesday vote.
As the Senate needs unanimous support to move quickly on most issues, any one senator can grind activity to a halt if they choose. The chamber now likely will not vote on overruling the president on the defense bill until the new year. It could then move on to the stimulus checks legislation.
Trump escalated the pressure on Republicans to pass larger payments Tuesday afternoon. However, he indicated he would like to tie the relief to Section 230 reform and his desperate efforts to overturn President-elect Joe Biden's November victory. The president's lawyers have repeatedly failed to prove systemic voter fraud cost him the election.
"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!" Trump wrote on Twitter. "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!"
If the full Senate considers stand-alone stimulus check legislation, all 48 Democrats and independents who caucus with them would likely vote for it. It would then need support from 12 of the chamber's 52 Republicans. But a bill with the Section 230 and election provisions attached would lose many, if not all, Democrats.
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, it will then be added to the original sum.
As some GOP senators opposed the $900 billion in spending in the latest relief package, they may not support adding $463 billion — the Joint Committee on Taxation's cost estimate for increasing the checks to $2,000 — to the price tag. However, several Republicans such as Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue of Georgia have said they will back the $2,000 payments.
In a tweet responding to Loeffler and Perdue's support for bigger checks, Hawley said: "We have the votes. Let's vote today." He, like Sanders, said he would block consideration of the defense bill until the Senate votes on the $2,000 payments.
If the GOP would decide against holding a vote on bigger checks, it would have to defy the man who controls the Republican Party: Trump. He has repeatedly pushed for $2,000 payments since he threatened to veto the aid bill last week.
He said he wanted larger direct payments along with less foreign aid funding in the $1.4 trillion government funding package passed in tandem with the relief proposal. Trump relented and signed the legislation into law Sunday night, approving the pandemic aid and preventing a government shutdown.
Votes in the House on Monday show the GOP may have become more comfortable bucking Trump. Only 44 Republicans supported the $2,000 check legislation, while 130 GOP representatives voted against it. Republicans also joined Democrats in easily overriding Trump's veto of the defense bill.
Sanders' move to keep the Senate in Washington through the week could also hamper Loeffler and Perdue, the Georgia Republicans campaigning in crucial Jan. 5 runoff elections. If Democrats win both races — in which they have hammered the GOP senators for their response to the coronavirus — they will flip control of the Senate.
However, it is unclear if and when the two senators will return to Washington.
The Democrats running in those contests, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, have called the GOP senators' coronavirus response inadequate and pushed them to support $2,000 payments. In Fox News interviews Tuesday, Loeffler and Perdue suggested they would back the larger checks.
"I've stood by the president 100% of the time. I'm proud to do that and I've said absolutely, we need to get relief to Americans now. And I will support that," Loeffler said when asked if she would vote for the bill.
Perdue told Fox he is "delighted to support the president" in his push for $2,000 deposits.
On Twitter later, both fully endorsed the $2,000 payments.
Both had previously resisted efforts to send higher direct payments as part of the stimulus package.
The effort to boost the size of direct payments comes amid widespread concern about whether the rescue package went far enough to help Americans struggling to pay for housing and food. Congress failed for months to renew pandemic-era financial lifelines that expired over the summer as millions started to spiral into poverty.
Before he agreed to the $900 billion package, McConnell had pushed for about $500 billion in new spending. Democrats, meanwhile, called for at least $2.2 trillion in aid.
The compromise package the parties eventually reached includes $600 direct payments, half of what Congress passed in March as part of the CARES Act. It also adds a $300 federal unemployment insurance supplement, half of the enhanced payment Congress approved in March. The $600 weekly supplement for jobless Americans expired in July after lawmakers failed to renew it.
The new package includes $284 billion in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans. It also extends a federal eviction moratorium through Jan. 31 and creates a $25 billion rental assistance fund.
The bill puts more than $8 billion into Covid-19 vaccine distribution and more than $20 billion into providing it to Americans for free.
It also includes $82 billion in education funding and $45 billion for transportation. It left out any aid for state and local governments struggling as the pandemic drags on.
— CNBC's Hannah Miao contributed to this report