In Washington, D.C., legislators need to be both steadfast in their beliefs and willing to compromise on those beliefs, a delicate balance whose consequences have been made glaringly obvious this year. 2020 is drawing to a close, taking with it a presidential election, the onset of a pandemic, and Congress's negligent response to the harms wrought by the virus.
Americans are in dire need of several forms of aid: jobless benefits, rent relief, student debt cancellation. And a new fight playing out on Capitol Hill illustrates the political and humanitarian stakes of getting something done. Congress hasn't passed a coronavirus relief bill since the $2 trillion CARES Act in March, and the most substantive aid included there was a one-time direct payment of $1,200 — which, for many people, doesn't even cover one month of rent. In the nine months that have passed since the CARES Act took effect, Congress has failed to take further action.
Finally, in recent weeks, there's been momentum around a bipartisan compromise bill. It's hardly the stuff of dream legislation, but at this point, one could argue that some relief is better than none. Notably, though, the bill doesn't include a second stimulus check for Americans. — and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is arguing that that single fact should tank the bill altogether. The 79-year-old senator spoke with Politico this week about his efforts to lobby his Democratic colleagues — with whom he votes on most issues — to reject the relief package because it is too skimpy.
"What kind of negotiation is it when you go from $3.4 trillion to $188 billion in new money? That is not a negotiation. That is a collapse," Sanders told Politico. "We cannot go home until there [are] strong unemployment benefits plus $1,200 per adult, $500 per kid for every working person and family in this country."
Sanders disagreed with the Republican-led bill that doesn't include direct cash payments to taxpayers and includes liability protections for companies. And he has an unlikely ally in this fight: Conservative Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri reportedly called President Trump last week, urging him to reject a congressional package that doesn't include direct cash payments.
The bipartisan, bicameral package put forward on Dec. 1 that repurposes unused money from the CARES Act has support from both sides of the aisle. But progressives argue that it offers more support for businesses than individual people. Republicans have refused to compromise on coronavirus relief for months, and Sanders is urging Democrats to beat them at their own game. Will it work?
"Democrats pass a $3.4 trillion bill, you have the Republicans in the administration talking about $1.8 trillion. And now you’re down to about $188 billion in new money [in the bipartisan bill], which does not include one nickel in direct payments for working families in this country. Totally unacceptable, and this has got to be rejected," Sanders said.
Republicans, with their president still in the White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) holding the keys to the upper chamber, would seem to have the upper hand in negotiations. McConnell refused to bring the HEROES Act to the Senate for a vote; the bill was passed in May by Democrats in the House. That was the last time a coronavirus bill advanced in D.C.
Sanders, though, is hoping to use the holiday break as leverage to get a more robust proposal on the table. "Congress cannot go home for the holidays unless we pass a $1,200 direct payment to working class adults and $500 in payments for their kids," he said. "Congress is not going to go home until we do that. That’s what the American people want."