Mitch McConnell blocks Trump's demand for quick Senate vote on higher COVID-19 relief

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday blocked Democrats' push to immediately bring President Donald Trump's demand for bigger $2,000 US COVID-19 relief cheques up for a vote, saying the chamber would "begin a process" to address the issue.

Senate leader plans to bring the president's demand for higher cheques 'into focus'

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves the Senate floor as the Senate faces a decision over approving $2,000 US stimulus cheques and overriding Trump's veto of the National Defence Authorization Act on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Tuesday. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday blocked Democrats' push to immediately bring President Donald Trump's demand for bigger $2,000 US COVID-19 relief cheques up for a vote, saying the chamber would "begin a process" to address the issue.

Pressure is mounting on the Republican-led Senate to follow the House, which voted overwhelmingly on Monday to meet the president's demand to increase the cheques from $600 as the virus crisis worsens. A growing number of Republicans, including two senators in runoff elections on Jan. 5 in Georgia, have said they will support the larger amount. But most Republican senators oppose more spending, even if they are also wary of bucking Trump.

The outcome is highly uncertain heading into the rare holiday-week session.

"There's one question left today: Do Senate Republicans join with the rest of America in supporting $2,000 cheques?" Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said as he made a motion to vote.

McConnell, who has said little publicly on Trump's request, objected but gave almost no indication of his plans ahead.

"The Senate will begin a process," the Republican leader said. He said he plans to bring the president's demand for the $2,000 cheques and other remaining issues "into focus."

Republicans divided

The showdown has thrown Congress into a chaotic year-end session just days before new lawmakers are set to be sworn into office for the new year. It's preventing action on another priority — overturning Trump's veto on a sweeping defence bill that has been approved every year for 60 years.

The president's last-minute push for bigger relief cheques deeply divides Republicans, who are split between those who align with Trump's populist instincts and those 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.

Liberal senators led by Bernie Sanders of Vermont who support the relief aid are blocking action on the defence bill until a vote can be taken on Trump's demand for $2,000 for most Americans.

"The working class of this country today faces more economic desperation than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s," Sanders said as he also tried to force a vote on the relief cheques.

"Working families need help now," he said. But McConnell objected a second time.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is seen after speaking on the Senate floor on Capitol Hill on Dec. 29, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday that the Senate would 'begin a process' to consider larger stimulus checks for Americans. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

The Republican blockade may not be sustainable in the face of Trump's demands and as senators face the constituents at home.

The two Republican senators from Georgia, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, announced Tuesday they support Trump's plan for bigger cheques as they face Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in runoff elections that will determine which party controls the Senate.

"I'm delighted to support the president," said Perdue on Fox News. Loeffler said in an interview on Fox that she, too, backs the boosted relief cheques.

Trump tweeted his demands ahead of Tuesday's Senate session: "$2,000 for our great people, not $600!"

Following Trump's lead, Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida, among the party's potential 2024 presidential hopefuls, are pushing the party in the president's direction.

"We've got the votes. Let's vote today," Hawley tweeted.

The House vote late Monday was a stunning turn of events. Just days ago, during a brief Christmas Eve session, Republicans blocked Trump's sudden demand for bigger cheques as he defiantly refused to sign the broader COVID-19 aid and year-end funding bill into law.

U.S. President Donald Trump waves from his armored vehicle while departing from the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Tuesday. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Trump fumes and golfs

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 payments 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.

In the Senate, McConnell is expected to be devising a way out of the bind, perhaps incorporating two other issues Trump raised Sunday as he ultimately signed the massive package into law.

Trump repeated his frustrations over the outcome of the presidential election, which he lost to president-elect Joe Biden, as well as the ability of technology companies like Facebook and Twitter to regulate content in ways Trump believes are unfair.

"Those are the three important subjects the president has linked together," McConnell said.

U.S. president-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks on the U.S. response to the COVID-19 outbreak, at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 29, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Biden supports greater relief

Trump's push could fizzle in the Senate and do little to change the COVID-19 relief and federal spending package Trump signed into law.

But the debate over the size and scope of the package — $900 billion in COVID-19 aid and $1.4 trillion to fund government agencies — is potentially one last confrontation between the president and the Republican Party. The new Congress is set to be sworn in Sunday.

For now, the $600 cheques are set to be delivered, along with other aid, among the largest rescue packages of its kind.

Biden told reporters at an event Monday in Wilmington, Del., that he supported the $2,000 cheques.

Economists said a $600 cheque will help, but that it's a far cry from the spending power that a $2,000 cheque would provide for the economy, particularly into summer when vaccinations are expected to have reached a wider swath of the population.

"It will make a big difference whether it's $600 versus $2,000," said Ryan Sweet, an economist with Moody's.