WASHINGTON — Donald Trump is leaving office the same way he spent much of his presidency: by putting his party leaders in a vise between their ideological instincts and personal loyalty to him.
Trump's demand that stimulus payments be raised to a maximum of $2,000 per person was approved by the Democratic-led House. But it faces an uphill climb in the Republican-led Senate, where his party's leaders are now torn between conservative orthodoxy and GOP voter demands for loyalty to Trump and their desire to win a crucial Senate election in Georgia on Jan. 5.
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called for unanimous consent to enhance the approved $600 payments to $2,000. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., objected on behalf of Republicans, blocking the request.
The exchange came after Trump held up the $900 billion coronavirus relief package for six days, complaining after it overwhelmingly passed Congress that the $600 stimulus payments were too small. When he ultimately blinked and signed it, the president said he did so with concessions.
"The Senate will start the process for a vote that increases checks to $2,000, repeals Section 230 and starts an investigation into voter fraud," Trump said in a statement.
Democrats quickly took him up on the call for $2,000 payments, putting the ball in McConnell's court.
The two Georgia GOP senators facing voters next Tuesday, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, have faced pressure from Democratic opponents Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to back the $2,000 checks. After hesitating, the two Republicans tweeted on Tuesday that they will support the increase to $2,000.
It is an uncomfortable spot for two conservative lawmakers who have campaigned heavily against a march to "socialism" and intrusive government. The new position sets aside their complaints about the national debt since the boost in direct payments would add nearly $464 billion in red ink. And it comes days before Trump is scheduled to rally for them on Monday, the day before the election, near Atlanta.
Their Democratic rivals pounced, accusing the Republicans of shifting their positions out of political expedience.
Warnock said Loeffler has been absent on Covid-19 relief and that "Georgians learned long ago they can't trust Kelly Loeffler to look out for anyone but herself." Ossoff highlighted Perdue's past criticisms of direct payments, saying he "hasn’t had a change of heart — he's exclusively focused on his own political survival."
During the long and painstaking negotiations that led to the $900 billion package, Republicans resisted the inclusion of more direct payments but ultimately accepted a level of $600 per qualifying American — half the amount in the CARES Act in March.
The stimulus payments are popular at a time of high joblessness as millions of Americans struggle to pay rent and buy food in the pandemic. Rejecting them outright would be painful for the GOP and potentially hurt them in the Georgia runoffs, which will determine which party controls the Senate.
McConnell suggested a way out on Tuesday.
He unveiled a bill that combines Trump’s three demands — it boosts the payments to $2,000, repeals an internet liability law known as Section 230 and sets up a commission to investigate the election.
"This week, the Senate will begin a process to bring these three priorities into focus," he said.
McConnell’s office did not immediately confirm or comment on the bill, which was circulated Tuesday afternoon by a Democratic leadership aide.
The move all but assures the $2,000 checks fail, by forcing lawmakers to approve the medley of policies together or shoot all three down.
McConnell’s bill appears designed to placate Trump and give Perdue and Loeffler a way out of their dilemma ahead of the election. But it’s unlikely to become law.
Schumer called it a “cynical gambit” designed to kill the $2,000 payments.
“If Sen. McConnell tries loading up the bipartisan House-passed CASH Act with unrelated, partisan provisions that will do absolutely nothing to help struggling families across the country, it will not pass the House and cannot become law — any move like this by Sen. McConnell would a blatant attempt to deprive Americans of a $2,000 survival check,” Schumer said in a statement.
The question of what to do about Section 230 — shorthand for an internet liability law that affects social media companies — divides lawmakers. And any voting measures that bolster Trump's baseless claims of widespread fraud are seen by Democrats as poison pills.
While Trump has voiced support for all three provisions, the president has not demanded that they be tied together. He piled on the pressure for $2,000 payments after McConnell's objection Tuesday, saying a refusal to pass them would amount to "a death wish" for Republicans.
Also on Tuesday, McConnell said the Senate would vote to "re-approve" a major military authorization bill vetoed by Trump, setting up the first override of his presidency after the House achieved the two-thirds threshold needed for that on Monday.
But there's a wrinkle in that plan: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is threatening to hold up the defense bill unless there is a vote on the $2,000 payments. Such a move could force Loeffler and Perdue to choose between campaigning or staying in Washington to clear procedural hurdles.
"If Senator McConnell doesn't agree to an up or down vote to provide the working people of our country a $2,000 direct payment, Congress will not be going home for New Year's Eve," Sanders said.
A Sanders spokesman said his objection stands unless McConnell calls a standalone vote on the House-passed CASH Act, calling that "the only feasible path" to boost the checks before the end of the session.