McConnell, GOP face splits with Trump over defense, relief
Congressional Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, face high-stakes decisions in coming days over two giant pieces of bipartisan legislation that President Donald Trump savaged this week.
Trump on Wednesday vetoed a $740.5 billion annual defense spending bill, which passed both chambers of Congress with greater than two-thirds majorities earlier this month.
On Saturday, Trump tweeted that he will "not stand by and watch this travesty of a bill happen without reigning in Big Tech," but the outcome of the legislation now rests with lawmakers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans a vote to override that veto next week, with McConnell's office pledging guidance on his intentions after the House acts.
Also in play is a mammoth $2.3 trillion covid-19 relief and government funding bill. Since the measure passed this week Trump has attacked it repeatedly for including "wasteful" spending and for having insufficient stimulus checks -- after the White House earlier signaled he would sign the legislation.
House Republicans blocked a bid Thursday by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to increase the payments to $2,000 -- up from the $600 previously authorized. Democrats blocked a Republican counterproposal that would repurpose foreign-aid money in the portion of the bill to fund the government.
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, in a letter to colleagues on Wednesday night, said Congress should "reexamine how our tax dollars are spent overseas," though those provisions were part of a bipartisan appropriations process.
Democrats plan to vote Monday on new legislation to codify the $2,000 payments for most American adults and children. They could also vote on another stopgap measure to fund the government past the current spending deadline of midnight that day. While that would avert a government shutdown if the Senate also passes it and the president signs it, it is still unclear what Trump plans to do with the larger pandemic relief and annual spending bill Congress passed on Dec. 21. The bill has been flown to Florida, where Trump is spending the holidays, according to a person familiar with the matter.
"We can only do in the House what we can do," Hoyer told reporters Thursday. "we are not going to let the government shut down. We are not going to the let the American people down from our perspective."
David Popp, a spokesman for McConnell, didn't respond to questions about Trump's call for increased direct payments and Pelosi's plan to pursue this in the House.
How Republican leaders respond to Trump's criticisms could affect the outcome of the Jan. 5 Georgia runoff elections that will determine control of the Senate for the next two years -- and whether McConnell will continue to oversee the flow of legislation and political and judicial nominations in Washington.
Trump rejected the defense policy bill on Wednesday, saying the legislation was a "gift" to China and Russia and failed "to include critical national security measures."
Trump wanted to attach to the defense measure an unrelated provision to eliminate Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects technology companies from liability for most content published by their users. He had also criticized the legislation because it contained a provision for renaming military installations that honor Confederate generals.
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jim Inhofe, said the defense bill is "vital to our national security and our troops." Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said Trump's complaints about technology liability could be addressed in different legislation.
"I hope all of my colleagues in Congress will join me in making sure our troops have the resources and equipment they need to defend this nation," Inhofe said in a statement shortly after Trump vetoed the bill.
The bill, which includes military pay raises, hazard pay and health benefits for soldiers, has successfully cleared Congress for the past 59 years.
Lawmakers' plans to override Trump's defense bill veto next week will be the first time Trump is overruled by Congress. If Trump vetoes the combined pandemic relief and spending bill, that could be the second. Trump has rejected several bills during his tenure, but Congress has yet to successfully override any of his vetoes.
The decision about whether to expand the stimulus payments will also highlight growing political division in Trump's party, splitting populists eager for more direct aid, like Senator Josh Hawley, against fiscal conservatives, including Senator Pat Toomey, who have been lobbying for months to keep the overall size of the stimulus package under $1 trillion.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer urged McConnell to take up a vote on the larger payments in a tweet Wednesday.
Trump's moves also complicate the campaign politics for Georgia Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, who are seeking to ward off Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. A double win for Democrats would give them control of the Senate, albeit only through the tie-breaking vote of Kamala Harris as vice president.
Warnock and Ossoff have backed bigger payments, and dared their opponents to do the same. Loeffler stopped short of specifically calling for $2,000 payments, saying at an event Wednesday that she supports "redirecting any wasteful spending to be very targeted at families and businesses who have been impacted by this virus."
The president has given Democrats an opportunity, by pitting himself against arguments put forward by his own party, said Gordon Gray, the director of fiscal policy at the right-leaning American Action Forum.
"For Pelosi and Schumer, it was never a problem with them to have higher rebates, so they are happy to put McConnell and McCarthy on the spot and cause problems for the Georgia delegation," Gray said. "Fundamentally, the president has abdicated his responsibility. He was completely disengaged from the process."