Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday rallied behind a call from Donald Trump to increase the size of a $900 billion (€740 billion) stimulus package to boost the pandemic-hit US economy, setting up another year-end battle with Republicans over the scale of the relief Bill.
In a surprise move that stunned his own party and advisers, Mr Trump on Tuesday evening rejected the stimulus Bill as a “disgrace” and urged lawmakers to provide individual Americans with stimulus cheques of $2,000 – more than triple the currently agreed direct payment of $600.
The stimulus package passed with big majorities in both houses of Congress this week following months of negotiations, but Mr Trump's intervention threatens to torpedo the compromise.
Democrats were quick to back Mr Trump’s demand for more generous stimulus cheques, which would boost the overall size of the package substantially, arguing that they had always argued for larger direct payments.
Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democratic senator, said she was "100 per cent on board" with $2,000 cheques. On Twitter, she wrote that House and Senate Democrats were "united" and urged Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader – who has been reluctant to spend more – to back higher payments.
“What do you say... Does your caucus have the heart to give the American people the relief they’ve needed for months?” Ms Warren tweeted to Mr McConnell.
While many Americans would welcome bigger cheques, the move sparked yet another year-end crisis in Washington as lawmakers scrambled to find a path forward before the holidays.
The Covid-19 stimulus Bill was bundled with a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending Bill to fund the government. Congress passed a temporary spending Bill to fund the government, but that expires at midnight on December 28th.
In a video address on Tuesday evening, Mr Trump said the extra stimulus money could be found by eliminating "wasteful" spending in the Bill. But he was conflating some of the items in the omnibus spending Bill, which are unrelated to the Covid-19 package, including some that his own White House requested from Congress.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, said she would try on Thursday to pass a Bill with $2,000 cheques via "unanimous consent", but just one lawmaker could block that effort. Neither Mr McConnell nor Senate Republicans have indicated whether they intend to respond to the pressure from Mr Trump.
The Republicans face a political bind because any effort to block the push will be used by Democrats in their campaign to win two Georgia Senate seats in early January. Mr McConnell is desperate to win both seats to keep Republican control of the Senate as Joe Biden prepares to take office.
The latest crisis on Capitol Hill came as fresh economic data painted a sobering picture of the US economy as restrictions to curb a resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic continued to bite. Household spending fell for the first time in seven months in November alongside a drop in incomes, while the number of Americans filing for jobless benefits remained at elevated levels.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an influential progressive lawmaker, joined the chorus of Democrats backing the push by Mr Trump. "Let's do it... Glad to see the President is willing to support our legislation," she wrote on Twitter.
Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, retweeted her comment and urged his Republican counterpart to back them. "Whaddya say, Mitch? Let's not get bogged down with ideological offsets and unrelated items and just DO THIS!"
The $900 billion Bill passed both houses of Congress with more than the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto, but it was unclear if Mr Trump’s move would change the political calculus for some lawmakers.
Jim Manley, a former top Senate Democratic aide, said the twists had created a complicated situation that could only be resolved if Republicans were willing to dramatically reverse course.
“Procedurally it’s very complicated, with a lot of moving parts,” Mr Manley said. “But the reality is that nothing will get done unless there is co-operation from Republicans in both the House and the Senate, and I simply don’t see that happening.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020