WASHINGTON — House Republicans shot down a Democratic bid on Thursday to pass President Donald Trump's longshot, end-of-session demand for $2,000 direct payments to most Americans before signing a long-overdue COVID-19 relief bill.
The made-for-TV clash came as the Democratic-controlled chamber convened for a pro forma session scheduled in anticipation of a smooth Washington landing for the massive, year-end legislative package, which folds together a $1.4 trillion governmentwide spending with the hard-fought COVID-19 package and dozens of unrelated but bipartisan bills.
Thursday's unusual 12-minute House session session instead morphed into unconvincing theater in response to Trump's veto musings about the package, which was negotiated by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Trump's behalf. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat, sought the unanimous approval of all House members to pass the bill, but GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, who was not present in the nearly-empty chamber, denied his approval and the effort fizzled.
If Trump were to follow through on his implied veto threat, delivered via video clip on Tuesday, the government would likely experience a brief, partial shutdown of the government starting on Dec. 29. It would also delay delivery of the $600 direct payments that the bill does contain.
Senate Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have opposed larger $2,000 checks as too costly and poorly targeted. Democrats are supportive of the direct payments and now plan to vote on the $2,000 check proposal on Monday. House Republicans are expected to block the vote, but Democrats may try again Monday.
The president's last-minute objections are setting up a defining showdown with his own Republican Party in his final days in office.
Rather than take the victory of the sweeping aid package, among the biggest in history, Trump is lashing out at GOP leaders over the presidential election — for acknowledging Joe Biden as president-elect and rebuffing his campaign to dispute the Electoral College results when they are tallied in Congress on Jan. 6.
The president's push to increase direct payments for most Americans from $600 to $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for couples splits the party with a politically painful loyalty test, including for GOP senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, fighting to retain their seats in the Jan. 5 special election in Georgia.
Republican lawmakers traditionally balk at big spending and many never fully embraced Trump's populist approach. Their political DNA tells them to oppose a costlier relief package. But now they're being asked to stand with the president.
On a conference call Wednesday House Republican lawmakers complained that Trump threw them under the bus, according to one Republican on the private call and granted anonymity to discuss it. Most had voted for the package and they urged leaders to hit the cable news shows to explain its benefits, the person said.
Democrats were taking advantage of the Republican disarray to apply pressure for a priority. Jon Ossoff, Perdue's Democratic opponent, tweeted simply on Tuesday night: "$2,000 checks now."
The relief bill Trump is criticizing would establish a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theaters and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction.
Even though Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin represented the White House in negotiations, Trump assailed the bipartisan effort in a video he tweeted out Tuesday night, suggesting he may not sign the legislation.
Railing against a range of provisions in the broader government funding package, including foreign aid mainstays included each year, Trump called the bill a "disgrace."
Trump did not specifically vow to use his veto power, and there may be enough support in Congress to override him if he does. But the consequences would be severe if Trump upends the legislation. It would mean no federal aid to struggling Americans and small businesses, and no additional resources to help with vaccine distribution. To top it off, because lawmakers linked the pandemic relief bill to an overarching funding measure, the government would shut down on Dec. 29.
The final text of the more than 5,000-page bill was still being prepared by Congress and was not expected to be sent to the White House for Trump's signature before Thursday or Friday, an aide said.
That complicates the schedule ahead. If Trump vetoes the package, or allows it to expire with a "pocket veto" at the end of the year, Americans will go without massive amounts of COVID aid.
A resolution could be forced Monday. That's when a stopgap funding bill Congress approved to keep the government funded while the paperwork was being compiled expires, risking a federal shutdown.
Democrats are considering another stopgap measure to at least keep government running until Biden is sworn into office Jan. 20, according to two aides granted anonymity to discuss the private talks.
The House was already set to return Monday, and the Senate Tuesday, for a vote to override Trump's veto of the must-pass defense bill. Democrats may try again at that time to pass Trump's proposal for $2,000 checks, as well as the temporary government funding measure to avert a shutdown, the aides said.
The push for bigger payments to Americans drew rare common cause between Trump and some of the most liberal members of Congress. Pelosi and Democrats said they fought for the higher stipends during protracted negotiations only to settle on the lower number when Republicans refused.
Pelosi is set to offer the president's proposal Thursday under a procedure that allows just one lawmaker to object to its consideration. It will be pushed forward during a so-called pro forma session, with few lawmakers expected to attend. McCarthy and Republicans are poised to object.
Republicans have been reluctant to spend more on pandemic relief and only agreed to the big year-end package as time dwindled for a final deal. Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, said that "Trump needs to sign the bill to help people and keep the government open," and Congress would step up for more aid after.
The Senate cleared the huge relief package by a 92-6 vote after the House approved it by 359-53. Those votes totals would be enough to override a veto should Trump decide to take that step.
Biden applauded lawmakers for their work. He described the package as far from perfect, "but it does provide vital relief at a critical time."
He also said more relief would be needed in the months ahead.