By LISA MASCARO and JILL COLVIN Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s push for $2,000 COVID-19 relief checks now rests with the Senate after the House voted overwhelmingly to meet the president’s demand to increase the $600 stipends, but Republicans have shown little interest in boosting spending.
The outcome is highly uncertain heading into Tuesday’s session. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has declined to publicly address how he plans to handle the issue. But Democrats, sharing a rare priority with Trump, have seized on the opportunity to force Republicans into a difficult vote of either backing or defying the outgoing president.
After bipartisan approval by the House, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer warned, “There is no good reason for Senate Republicans to stand in the way.”
“There’s strong support for these $2,000 emergency checks from every corner of the country,” Schumer said in a statement late Monday. He called on McConnell to make sure the Senate helps “meet the needs of American workers and families who are crying out for help.”
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The House tally was a stunning turn of events. Just days ago Republicans blocked Trump’s sudden demands for bigger checks during a brief Christmas Eve session as he defiantly refused to sign the broader COVID-19 aid and year-end funding bill into law.
As Trump spent days fuming from his private club in Florida, where he is spending the holidays, dozens of Republicans calculated it was better to link with Democrats to increase the pandemic stipend rather than buck the outgoing president and constituents counting on the money. Democrats led passage, 275-134, but 44 Republicans joined almost all Democrats in approval.
Senators were set to return to session Tuesday amid similar, stark GOP divisions between those who align with Trump’s populist instincts and others who adhere to what had been more traditional conservative views against government spending. Congress had settled on smaller $600 payments in a compromise over the big year-end relief bill Trump reluctantly signed into law.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared, “Republicans have a choice: Vote for this legislation or vote to deny the American people the bigger paychecks they need.”
The showdown could end up as more symbol than substance if Trump’s effort fizzles out in the Senate.
The legislative action during the rare holiday week session may do little to change the $2 trillion-plus COVID-19 relief and federal spending package Trump signed into law Sunday, one of the biggest bills of its kind providing relief for millions of Americans.
That package — $900 billion in COVID-19 aid and $1.4 trillion to fund government agencies — will deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and avert a federal government shutdown that otherwise would have started Tuesday, in the midst of the public health crisis.
But the outcome will define Trump’s GOP, putting a spotlight on the Georgia runoff election Jan. 5 where two Republican senators are in the fights of their political lives against Democrats in a pair of races that will determine which party controls the Senate next year.
Together with votes Monday and Tuesday to override Trump’s veto of a sweeping defense bill, it’s potentially one last confrontation between the president and the Republican Party he leads as he imposes fresh demands and disputes the results of the presidential election. The new Congress is set to be sworn in Sunday.
Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, acknowledged the division and said Congress had already approved ample funds during the COVID-19 crisis. “Nothing in this bill helps anybody get back to work,” he said.
Aside from the direct $600 checks to most Americans, the COVID-19 portion of the bill revives a weekly pandemic jobless benefit boost — this time $300, through March 14 — as well as a popular Paycheck Protection Program of grants to businesses to keep workers on payrolls. It extends eviction protections, adding a new rental assistance fund.
The COVID-19 package draws and expands on an earlier effort from Washington. It offers billions of dollars for vaccine purchases and distribution, for virus contact tracing, public health departments, schools, universities, farmers, food pantry programs and other institutions and groups facing hardship in the pandemic.
Americans earning up to $75,000 will qualify for the direct $600 payments, which are phased out at higher income levels, and there’s an additional $600 payment per dependent child.
Meantime the government funding portion of the bill keeps federal agencies nationwide running without dramatic changes until Sept. 30.
President-elect Joe Biden told reporters at an event in Wilmington, Delaware, that he supported the $2,000 checks.
Trump’s sudden decision to sign the bill came as he faced escalating criticism from lawmakers on all sides over his eleventh-hour demands. The bipartisan bill negotiated by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had already passed the House and Senate by wide margins. Lawmakers had thought they had Trump’s blessing after months of negotiations with his administration.
The president’s defiant refusal to act, publicized with a heated video he tweeted just before the Christmas holiday, sparked chaos, a lapse in unemployment benefits for millions and the threat of a government shutdown in the pandemic. It was another crisis of his own making, resolved when he ultimately signed the bill into law.
In his statement about the signing, Trump repeated his frustrations with the COVID-19 relief bill for providing only $600 checks to most Americans and complained about what he considered unnecessary spending, particularly on foreign aid — much of it proposed by his own budget.
While the president insisted he would send Congress “a redlined version” with spending items he wants removed, those are merely suggestions to Congress. Democrats said they would resist such cuts.
For now, the administration can only begin work sending out the $600 payments.
Most House Republicans simply shrugged off Trump’s push, 130 of them voting to reject the higher checks that would pile $467 billion in additional costs. Another 20 House Republicans — including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, a Trump confidant — skipped the vote, despite pandemic procedures that allow lawmakers to vote by proxy to avoid travel to the Capitol. McCarthy was recovering at home from elbow surgery, his office said.
A day after the signing, Trump was back at the golf course in Florida.