By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday put off a vote on President Donald Trump’s call to boost COVID-19 relief checks and urged the Senate to override his veto of a defense bill, in a rare challenge to his fellow Republican three weeks before Trump leaves office.
McConnell acted shortly after Trump assailed Republican leaders on Twitter, calling them “weak” and “tired” in an apparent effort to get the Senate to increase COVID-19 checks from $600 to $2,000 and to support his defense bill veto.
After McConnell addressed the start of a rare year-end Senate session, Trump tweeted that the Senate must approve the higher payments as soon as possible, “unless Republicans have a death wish.”
McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, blocked immediate consideration of a measure to increase COVID-19 relief payments, suggesting instead that the Senate would begin to examine the issue along with two others Trump has raised – the integrity of elections and limits on big technology companies.
“This week the Senate will begin a process to bring these three priorities into focus,” he said. McConnell did not elaborate on what action, if any, the Senate would take on stimulus checks.
A combined $892 billion bipartisan coronavirus relief package and $1.4 trillion spending bill that Trump signed into law on Sunday contains $600 checks for people hit hard financially by the coronavirus.
Democrats believe the stimulus check issue could give them an advantage in two critical Georgia runoff elections next week that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate and the fate of President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda when he takes office on Jan. 20.
U.S. stocks dipped into negative territory after McConnell rejected Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer’s call for the Senate to approve the increased stimulus aid by unanimous consent.
McConnell refused to cave to Trump’s demands on the military bill.
“For the brave men and women of the United States armed forces, failure is simply not an option,” he said. “So when it’s our turn in Congress to have their backs, failure is not an option either. I would urge my colleagues to support this legislation one more time, when we vote tomorrow.”
With the New Year’s Day holiday on Friday and a new Congress due to be sworn into office on Sunday, lawmakers have only a short time to act.
Republicans in Congress have largely stuck with Trump through four turbulent years during which he was impeached, became the focus of an inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and oversaw the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic which has killed 333,000 people in the United States.
Due to leave office in 22 days, Trump is angry that his party’s lawmakers have not fully backed his false claims of fraud in his November election loss to Biden, as well as their efforts to override a presidential veto for the first time since he took office in 2016 and their opposition to his efforts to give people bigger aid checks.
‘WEAK AND TIRED’
In a tweet storm just before the Senate session started, Trump attacked “weak and tired” Republican leaders.
“WE NEED NEW & ENERGETIC REPUBLICAN LEADERSHIP,” he wrote in a tweet falsely claiming that voter fraud caused his defeat in the Nov. 3 election.
“Republican leadership only wants the path of least resistance. Our leaders (not me, of course!) are pathetic. They only know how to lose!” he wrote without mentioning any party leader by name.
Addressing the Republican-dominated chamber, Schumer said it should not adjourn until it addresses COVID-19 stimulus checks and the defense policy bill.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives on Monday approved the increase in direct payments to $2,000. However, it faces a tough path in the Republican-led Senate, with many Republicans asserting it would cost hundreds of billions of extra dollars.
Instead of allowing immediate action on stimulus checks, McConnell emphasized the importance of provisions in the bipartisan relief package that Trump signed on Sunday, calling it “our shot at getting help to working families on the urgent timeline that they need.”
Final passage of the COVID-19 aid increase in the Senate would require 60 votes including the backing of a dozen Republicans.
At least five Republicans have so far voiced support for the higher payments.
The House on Monday voted to override the president’s veto of the defense policy bill and if the Senate seconds the House action, it becomes law. It would be the first veto override of Trump’s presidency.
Trump said he blocked the defense legislation because he opposed a provision to rename military bases named after generals who fought for the pro-slavery Confederacy during the Civil War, and because he wanted it to overturn liability protections for social media companies, an issue unrelated to national security.