This article originally appeared on The American Prospect.
The last-second push at the end of the 116th Congress to increase the value of survival checks for most Americans from $600 to $2,000 ran aground where so much progress has in the past two years: at the desk of Mitch McConnell. After the measure passed with bipartisan support in the House, the Senate majority leader added two poison-pill amendments, one to repeal the website liability shield for user-generated content and another to establish an “election integrity” commission designed to hype up bogus allegations about voter fraud. He and his colleagues in the Republican leadership rejected unanimous consent for a clean vote on checks at least seven times. By the end, McConnell was refusing to hold a vote for his own bill.
As McConnell made abundantly clear, there was no chance that the Senate GOP would be “bullied” into advancing $2,000 checks, despite support for the measure from the House, Senate Democrats, and President Trump. He had no problem keeping the Senate in session through New Year’s Day to dispense with other business. He was intent on running out the clock, and he got his wish.
Fortunately for those who support more checks, on Sunday at noon the clock restarted. The 117th Congress has just as much ability to pass legislation and send it to the president. And on January 5, voters in Georgia will decide who controls the floor of the Senate in 2021 and 2022: Mitch McConnell or Chuck Schumer. If it’s the latter, there will be no real barrier to immediate votes on survival checks.
This would clear up the growing skepticism on the left about Democratic commitment to the economic-relief measure. Democrats refused to hold hostage the only other major vote last week, an override of President Trump’s veto of the defense policy bill, in order to get a vote on checks. In fact, Democrats supplied more votes to the cause than Republicans. Bernie Sanders followed through on his promise to hold up the veto override as much as one senator can, but without the Democratic caucus fully behind him, he could only stretch out the inevitable.
The defense bill, which does not appropriate spending but sets policy for the year, was somewhat politically tough for Democrats to use as a political wedge. Because it’s perennially passed, it’s stuffed with policies members of both parties have worked on for years. This year’s version includes one of the most significant anti-corruption measures in years, which will end most anonymous shell corporations from coming into being. Provisions like that dampened enthusiasm for a true filibuster, combined with McConnell’s explicitly announced roadblock.
But if Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock win in Georgia, any obstacle evaporates. The $2,000 checks have become one of the animating features of the Senate runoffs, with Ossoff and Warnock campaigning heavily on the issue. Both have pointed out that their challengers, Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, could have used their position to persuade McConnell to change his position and hold a vote. The implication and sometimes explicit declaration is that, if they win, they will do what their opponents could not and force the vote.
Both Loeffler and Perdue rather meekly endorsed the $2,000 checks last week, after pressure from Ossoff and Warnock. But not only did they fail to convince McConnell of the need for a vote, they never even returned to Washington, sitting out the veto override while campaigning for their re-elections.
Part of this is on Democrats, who on three separate occasions did not force McConnell to come up with the required votes for the veto override. If Democrats sat out the motion to proceed, or if just half of them refused to vote on final passage, Loeffler and Perdue would have needed to come off the campaign trail.
Perdue is currently quarantining because a campaign staffer contracted the coronavirus, so he’s off the trail anyway. Still, any day of the Georgia campaign focused on the $2,000 checks is probably good for the Democrats. Polling has shown that 78 percent of voters support the checks, and they blame Republicans for blocking them by a 62-38 margin, with the plurality of those polled faulting McConnell and congressional Republicans. Heightening those tensions within the GOP by forcing the endangered Senate candidates to return to Washington might have been good politics.
The element of COVID relief that impacts the most people—broadly delivered checks—has become the yardstick by which it is judged.
Still, even without such drama, voters appear to have gotten the message that Republicans prevented the checks from passage. We don’t know what impact that will have on the Georgia vote. But with the election projected to be close, any movement is critical. That was the secondary reason why Sanders and Schumer tried to wedge McConnell on the checks: The idea was that his fear of losing the Senate majority would outweigh an ideological disinclination to spend money on regular people. Fear of losing Georgia led McConnell to relent on a $900 billion COVID relief bill; would it lead him to relent on the checks? Ultimately, ideology won out, but that may fatally wound Loeffler and Perdue at the polls.
If Ossoff and Warnock win, Democrats would have little excuse not to push forward. The House passed its checks legislation, the CASH Act, with a two-thirds majority, and 37 of the 44 Republicans who voted yes are still in the chamber. A 50-50 Senate is no guarantee of success; Republicans would still have the filibuster at their disposal. But at least one Republican (Missouri’s Josh Hawley) and several Democrats have stated that 60 votes were available for the measure last week. If the Senate chooses a majority leader who is willing to put checks on the floor, there’s a strong likelihood it would pass.
Putting the checks bill to a vote in the new Congress if Democrats win in Georgia has been the subtext of the entire campaign. Rev. Warnock has literally posted campaign ads that say, “Want a $2,000 check? Vote Warnock.” But Democrats have lost trust with their base, trust that can be regained with a simple affirmative announcement that the vote will happen. Every Senate Democrat has said they support the checks increase, but the abandonment of solidarity through the filibuster has plenty of people wondering about the follow-through. (Sen. Schumer’s office did not respond to the Prospect to a request for comment.)
One would hope that the absurd elite backlash to the concept hasn’t caught the ear of the Democratic leadership. The checks are better targeted than universally adored programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, and more important, no additional help is on the horizon. Maybe the $400 billion spent on checks could be put to better use, but that’s not what’s on the table, thanks to Trump’s advocacy and the political popularity of sending out cash. Either the checks get done or it’s back to scratch-and-claw negotiations with Republicans, who would be even more disinclined to extend relief during a Democratic presidency. Like it or not, the element of COVID relief that impacts the most people—broadly delivered checks—has become the yardstick by which it is judged, and improving that relief buys Americans in to activist government.
It should be more than clear: A Georgia victory clears the path for the $2,000 checks. At least that was the assumption under which everyone in the checks fight was operating. If the outcome for Democrats is positive in Georgia, we will see if that assumption was correct.