Forty-four House Republicans joined most Democrats on Monday night in backing legislation to dramatically increase the size of tax rebates in the latest coronavirus relief package.
The 275-134 vote sends the measure to the Senate, where it seems unlikely Republicans controlling that chamber will put the bill backed by President Donald Trump on the floor in a form that can pass.
The omnibus package Trump signed Sunday night after days of uncertainty will distribute $600 for each adult and qualifying child in families earning up to $150,000 a year, or $75,000 for single filers, after which the credit phases out at a rate of $5 per $100 of additional income.
That $165.7 billion compromise, negotiated in part by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, kept the overall cost of the $900 billion coronavirus relief package in check, allowing Republicans to feel good enough about the final price tag. Only 50 House Republicans voted 'no' on that part of the bill, enabling it to pass with a veto-proof majority.
But the bill House Democrats brought to the floor to boost the size of the checks to $2,000 per adult as well as each dependent will cost $463.8 billion alone, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. That's more than half the entire COVID-19 aid measure Trump signed on Sunday.
Since the bill came to the floor under suspension of the rules, a fast-track process that requires two-thirds support of members present and voting, GOP backing was critical. Republican leaders didn't whip the vote, despite substantial opposition within the conference and among conservative interest groups.
During floor debate, Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady said the bill would pass with bipartisan support but he wouldn't vote for it. "I worry that this whopping $463 billion won't do what's needed — stimulate the economy or get the jobless back to work," the Texas Republican said.
Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, the only Democrat besides Illinois Rep. Daniel Lipinski to vote against the bill, agreed. "This is an ineffective and poorly targeted approach to aiding Americans in distress," Schrader said in floor remarks.
Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group, sent a "key vote" letter to lawmakers Monday urging them to vote against the bill, arguing past experience shows direct payments do not stimulate the economy because people typically save the money or use it to pay down debt.
Despite economic arguments against the measure, bigger cash payments are popular with voters. The $2,000 checks have already become an issue in the Georgia Senate runoffs, with Democratic challengers questioning whether GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler will support Trump and vote for the bigger payments.
Some moderate House Republicans, also conscious of the political optics heading into the 2022 cycle where their party hopes to win back the majority, supported the bill.
New York GOP Rep. Tom Reed, who co-chairs the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus that helped put together a framework for the relief package, said in a statement he'd back the president's request. “It is only fair that we act decisively now to deliver the comprehensive relief individuals desperately need," Reed said.
Trump had requested larger checks a day after Congress passed the omnibus, signaling in a video posted to his Twitter account Tuesday that he might not sign the measure if lawmakers did not comply. The president also complained in the video about foreign aid and other spending provisions in the omnibus, which he ultimately signed Sunday after Congress promised him votes on the $2,000 check proposal.
A statement Trump issued after he signed the bill said he told Congress he wanted $2,000 checks per adult and $600 per child. The House bill goes further in boosting the amount for dependents to $2,000 as well, while also sending out $500 checks to adult dependents that didn't receive those in the March aid package. The difference may have provided some Republicans cover to vote against the bill.
Senate commitment shaky
It’s unlikely the Senate will take up the House-passed bill as a standalone measure. A statement Trump issued after he signed the omnibus indicated Senate leaders had committed to including the $2,000 checks in a broader package addressing his concerns on a variety of matters.
"The Senate will start the process for a vote that increases checks to $2,000, repeals Section 230, and starts an investigation into voter fraud," Trump said.
McConnell's office declined to elaborate on what that process would entail.
The most likely scenario is McConnell files cloture on the motion to proceed to a package addressing all three matters, setting up a procedural vote that requires 60 senators to support starting a formal debate on the measure.
Combining $2,000 checks Democrats want but many Republicans oppose with an investigation into voter fraud Democrats and even some Republicans have said was not prevalent in the 2020 election is likely enough to ensure there won’t be 60 votes to begin debate.
Adding in repeal of section 230 of the 1996 telecommunications act, which protects social media companies from most lawsuits related to third-party content posted on their platforms, further muddies the math since senators in both parties prefer to overhaul the law than get rid of it.
The combined package, however, may prove to be a good political messaging vote for Perdue and Loeffler ahead of their Jan. 5 runoff elections against Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. The Georgia runoffs will determine which party controls the Senate in the 117th Congress.
Ossoff and Warnock have made the $2,000 checks an issue in the campaign.
Perdue and Loeffler have not committed to supporting the $2,000 checks, although Loeffler said at a campaign event Wednesday she’d consider it.
“I’ll certainly look at supporting it — if it repurposes wasteful spending,” she said.
Perdue’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He has opposed direct payments in the past but supported the latest round of relief, and he touted the $600 checks in an ad released Tuesday.
Perdue and Loeffler expressed support for a separate defense policy bill that Trump vetoed in part because it didn't repeal section 230, but said they agreed that law should be updated. "President Trump is absolutely right that Section 230 for Big Tech needs to be addressed, and we are fighting to do that in separate legislation," the Georgia Republicans said in a joint statement on Dec. 11.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer is pushing for a standalone vote on the House $2,000 checks bill, but all he can do is ask unanimous consent to bring it up. Any Republican can object, and there will undoubtedly be one.
“Every Senate Democrat is for it. But unfortunately, we don’t have the Republicans on board,” Schumer said Monday at a press conference in New York. “Today I am telling Donald Trump, don’t just talk about it, act. These Senate Republicans have followed you through thick and thin. Get them to now to act and support the $2,000 check.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of GOP leadership, told reporters last week that legislation to provide $2,000 checks could not get 60 votes in the Senate. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., said on "Fox News Sunday" that it made little sense to give checks that large to millions of individuals who've remained employed through the pandemic and actually built up their savings.
Modest economic boost?
Even at such an enormous level of support for household budgets, $2,000 checks might have limited impact in the next few months, which is the period the nearly $900 billion package was meant to cover.
Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and policy director of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said in an email that the larger checks probably won’t provide much of an economic boost in the first quarter of 2021. That's because individuals who can afford to will likely put in the money in savings while they wait to see if Congress passes an additional relief package as Democrats are promising.
But it could have a helpful effect in the second quarter and beyond if Congress does not act and people dig into their savings to spend the extra $2,000, Goldwein said.
Trump's support notwithstanding, some conservatives are arguing the increased spending will actually depress the GOP base.
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, wrote in an op-ed Monday on the Federalist web site that despite massive U.S. debt, "the president capitulated, signed the bill, and left conservatives holding the bag" on the huge spending package.
“Some political consultants are assuredly in the president’s ear screaming about losing Georgia,” Roy wrote. “In truth, it’s Republican support of unprincipled debt-laden legislation like this that continues to drive more and more people away from the Republican Party.”
Niels Lesniewski and Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.