Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) teamed up Thursday to introduce an amendment to provide a new round of direct payments to Americans as lawmakers struggle to reach a deal on another coronavirus economic relief package.
The political odd couple ― one a leader of the progressive movement and the other a staunch conservative and ally of President Donald Trump ― says members of Congress shouldn’t leave town for the holidays without providing more help for the income hits that so many Americans have endured during the health crisis.
“It is absolutely imperative that we provide $1,200 for every working-class adult and $500 for each of their children. ... Congress cannot go home until we address this crisis,” Sanders said in a floor speech.
“What I want to make clear today is that this must be part of any COVID relief package, and if there isn’t a COVID relief package, then I want a vote on this stand-alone legislation,” Hawley told reporters later.
Direct cash payments to most American households were one of the most popular and efficient measures Congress passed as part of its initial response to the coronavirus pandemic several months ago. The payments totaled about $280 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
“You can’t tell me you can’t find $300 billion for working families. You just can’t tell me that isn’t possible,” Hawley said.
Another round of the checks has not been a part of negotiations over the next coronavirus relief package, mostly due to objections from GOP lawmakers who cite the effect on the federal budget deficit ― red ink that, with their support, has increased significantly under Trump.
The Trump administration this week proposed including $600 stimulus checks in the next relief bill, but the offer was rejected by Democrats because the package included no added federal unemployment assistance.
A bipartisan group of senators working to draft a $908 billion coronavirus relief bill said it was more urgent to get a deal preventing federal unemployment benefits and other emergency programs from expiring before the end of the year. Their proposal would provide an extra $300 a week in unemployment benefits for 16 weeks.
Hurdles to the group’s efforts include contentious issues like aid to state and local governments ― which Democrats strongly support ― and a liability shield to protect businesses against coronavirus-related lawsuits ― a major goal for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). He has suggested dropping both issues in favor of focusing on areas where both sides agree, like funding for vaccine distribution and aid to small businesses. Democratic leaders, though, argue that aid for state and local governments must be addressed now.
Looming over the Senate is the need to pass a bill on Friday to avert a partial government shutdown. The House earlier this week passed its own seven-day measure to give negotiators more time to hammer out agreements on annual spending bills and added coronavirus relief.
Sanders is threatening to delay passage of the short-term bill unless he gets a vote on the amendment he authored along with Hawley to provide another round of stimulus checks, according to Senate GOP leadership.
“Let’s play it by ear,” Sanders said Thursday when asked if he would hold up the funding bill.
“They can blame me for anything they want,” he said of the GOP’s Senate leadership. “But people back home by the millions are going to be blaming this Congress for inaction for leaving their children to go hungry or to get evicted.”
Hawley made clear he would not object to passage of the government funding bill on Friday, vowing instead to fight for a vote on stimulus checks next week.
Failure to avoid a government shutdown would mean another self-inflicted crisis by a Congress that has seen the negotiations among top party leaders on more federal coronavirus aid stymied for months even as the pandemic’s toll has worsened. The recent efforts by the bipartisan group of senators initially sparked optimism about the prospects for an accord, but those hopes have dimmed as the end of this congressional session draws near.
“I just don’t think in the amount of time we have left that ― it is such a complicated issue ― and even though they spent a lot of time trying to come up with sort of creative, innovative solutions to it, they’re just not going to be able to thread the needle,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said Thursday.
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