As Congress continues to work out another coronavirus relief bill, the possibility of another round of stimulus payments distributed directly to Americans remains open — but is by no means a sure thing.
The case for sending checks is straightforward: Millions and millions are struggling as the pandemic reaches its 10th month, with the federal government having essentially abandoned individual Americans. Moody’s Analytics projected that nearly 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January, as a federal eviction moratorium is set to expire, potentially leaving millions at risk of losing their homes. Hunger is rising, as census data found that 1 in 8 Americans reported running short of food during a single week in November, and food banks were besieged in advance of the holidays. November’s job numbers were the worst since the recovery started, and small businesses around the country continue to shutter.
The CARES Act, passed in March, included expanded unemployment insurance (UI) payments of $600 per week on top of one-time $1,200 stimulus checks and actually caused poverty to fall, keeping Americans afloat during the economic downturn. However, the primary federal unemployment benefits ended in late July without an extension or replacement from Congress, as a $3 trillion plan passed by the Democratic House in May was not brought to the Senate floor for a vote. The package currently being negotiated by a small bipartisan group of moderate senators led by Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, is expected to be around $900 billion.
Over the summer, resistance within the Republican Senate caucus due to the cost of the measure resulted in direct checks being stripped from proposed legislation. However, on Tuesday morning, Politico reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was “softening” on payments. Later that day, the Washington Post reported that the White House was asking for $600 stimulus payments to be included in the deal.
Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he could not support the Manchin-Romney deal because it “not only provides no direct payments to working families, it does nothing to address the healthcare crisis and has totally inadequate financial assistance for the most vulnerable. That is wrong morally and it is wrong economically if we hope to rebuild the economy.”
On Tuesday, Sanders was joined by five liberal colleagues (Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York) in a letter urging direct payments of $1,200 to adults and $500 to their children. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., an outspoken conservative, has also called for President Trump to veto any legislation that doesn’t include them.
“I said, ‘I think it’s vital that any relief include direct payments, and I’m not gonna vote for it if it doesn’t.’ And I also urged him to veto any bill that did not have direct payments in it,” Hawley said Monday.
Democrats in the House have pushed for a similar provision, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi telling Bloomberg on Tuesday that she hoped $1,200 checks could be added to the deal. The addition of checks had been pushed for by progressives in the House as well.
“If people don’t get UI assistance, and if they don’t get a stimulus check, then relief isn’t going to be felt in their lives, not in a substantive way,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said last week. “And so will I support resources to hospitals and schools and firefighters? Absolutely. But I am extremely concerned that it’s not going to solve the immediate problems that people have.”
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell agreed with the general sentiment last week, saying, “The risk of overdoing it is less than the risk of underdoing it. People are always worried about doing too much, and you look back in hindsight and say, ‘Well, we didn’t do too much. We might’ve done a little more and a little sooner.’”
Key sticking points in the negotiations at this point are a push by Democrats to help state and local governments whose tax revenues have plummeted and a demand by Republicans, led by McConnell, for a liability shield for businesses so they cannot be sued for coronavirus-related losses or damages, such as an employee contracting the disease at work.
Last week, Pelosi defended her decision to reject a proposal from the White House in October for a $1.8 trillion plan, double the amount now being discussed.
“President-elect [Joe] Biden has said this package would be at best just a start,” Pelosi said on Friday. “It is less money, but over a shorter period of time, and we need to do it to save lives and livelihood with the hope that much more help is on the way.”
One other factor that could be pushing Democrats toward a deal: the fear that if the Senate remains in Republican hands after the Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia there may be no stimulus at all next year, if McConnell pursues the same maximum-obstruction policies toward Biden as he did during the last Democratic administration.
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