Sanders to McConnell: Give me a real floor vote on expanded COVID-19 relief -- or else

Or else what? Let’s just say that House passage of the expanded COVID-19 relief bill and the override of Donald Trump’s veto of the defense bill has given Mitch McConnell not one but two big headaches. And they’re both named Bernie Sanders, as Jazz mentioned in his quick update to the previous post:

Sen. Bernie Sanders will filibuster an override of President Donald Trump’s defense bill veto unless the Senate holds a vote on providing $2,000 direct payments to Americans.

“McConnell and the Senate want to expedite the override vote and I understand that. But I’m not going to allow that to happen unless there is a vote, no matter how long that takes, on the $2,000 direct payment,” Sanders said in an interview on Monday night. The Vermont independent can’t ultimately stop the veto override vote, but he can delay it until New Year’s Day and make things more difficult for the GOP.

That’s the first headache, but at least it’s manageable. McConnell needs to get the Senate to override Trump’s veto of the NDAA before the end of this session of Congress, which will come no later than early on January 4, when the next session formally begins at noon ET. If not, the bill dies in the old session and must be passed from scratch by the incoming Congress. Sanders can’t postpone a final floor vote that long, at least not all by himself, but his objections can push it off long enough to force the other 99 senators to work over the weekend.

Which is Mitch McConnell’s second headache:

Under Senate rules, Sanders has the ability to keep the chamber in during the holiday week and likely mess with the campaign schedules of Sens. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.). Those two face Jan. 5 runoff races for control of the Senate against Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who are both campaigning on the $2,000 checks.

A source close to Sanders said the Senate races were a factor in his decision — part of a bid to keep Perdue and Loeffler in D.C. and focus the campaign on their position regarding the $2,000 checks. Sanders also threatened to shut down the government earlier this month if the coronavirus relief bill did not include direct payments; ultimately it included checks of up to $600 and the government stayed open, though now Trump wants to go much higher.

This makes for a much tougher decision for McConnell. The runoffs in Georgia appear to still be excruciatingly close, which means the GOP needs all hands on deck until voting end on January 5th. It’s tough enough that they’re still drafting Donald Trump to make a final pitch at a rally on January 4th. If Sanders can sideline Perdue and Loeffler even for a couple of days — and especially if he can tie them to Republicans’ opposition to more relief aid — Sanders could conceivably tip the election enough to give Chuck Schumer control of the Senate next week.

Ironically, McConnell probably doesn’t need Perdue or Loeffler for the veto override anyway. That should pass easily, with only a handful opposed to the NDAA. McConnell will need both Perdue and Loeffler around to oppose the relief bill more than he needs them to override Trump’s veto on the NDAA — but both of those positions put Loeffler and Perdue in opposition to the president who’ll host a rally for them, too.

In fact, that might be a third headache for McConnell. His first plan was to offer a quick unanimous-consent floor action on the House relief bonus bill, sure in the knowledge that any number of Senate Republicans would object and derail the bill. If Sanders forces McConnell into having a floor vote on HR 9051, suddenly that puts Purdue and Loeffler on the spot just days ahead of the election. The two of them will get roasted by Democrats and the media if they vote against the House’s expanded COVID-19 relief, a point on which Sanders is counting. If they flip to support it — and Marco Rubio’s already announced his support — suddenly Democrats have at least 50 votes for the bill, and Republicans might have to filibuster it to stop the spending if one more Republican flips. That’ll be an embarrassment for McConnell.

If so, let’s just remember that it’s his embarrassment. McConnell wouldn’t have been in this position if he’d allowed for a simple repeat of April’s $1200/person direct stimulus payments in Phase 4, as the Problem Solvers Caucus proposed in August and people on both sides of the aisle demanded. There wouldn’t have been any demand for the larger amount, or at least not enough to result in this standoff. Trump deserves some blame for waiting until almost the 13th hour to make his demand rather than get more involved in those negotiations, but Trump had made it known for months that he wanted bigger direct payments. Trump seems to be one of only a few Republicans in Washington to grasp the optics of shorting taxpayers while dumping cash into businesses and corporations, no matter how well-tailored and effective those aid programs are. McConnell doesn’t miss much on Capitol Hill, but he and his advisers put themselves in this position for not seeing past the Beltway.

Now McConnell is left with a choice over whether he wants to make a belated stand for fiscal discipline immediately after passing the bloated porkfest that was the omnibus spending bill, or wants to be Majority Leader after January 6th. He might get both, but Bernie Sanders is making it tough for McConnell to eat his pork and have it, too.