The $908 billion economic rescue package that a bipartisan group of senators have been pushing does not include one of the things we need most right now: direct cash payments to individuals.

This has created a budding left-right populist alliance of sorts between Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who are both pushing for inclusion of these payments.

Is there any way that this could end up making a difference? Yes, potentially.

Hawley, who plainly is eying a 2024 presidential run and has been trying to gain attention as a pro-worker “conservative populist” challenging his party’s devotion to conventional Paul Ryan-style plutocracy, is taking his case directly to President Trump himself.

Politico reports:

The Missouri Republican lobbied Trump to veto any coronavirus aid bill that does not contain a second tranche of checks to Americans in a phone call on Saturday. And Hawley said the president listened intently as he flew home on Air Force One from a rally in Georgia.
“I said, ‘I think it's vital that any relief include direct payments, and I'm not gonna vote for it if it doesn't.’ And I also urged him to veto any bill that did not have direct payments in it,” Hawley said in an interview on Monday.
Hawley argues that it is “wild” that a Senate GOP proposal and a bipartisan $908 billion plan offers aid but doesn’t include more checks like those $1,200 payments in March’s massive CARES Act package. And he said Trump seemed receptive to the argument.
“We had a good conversation about it. And, you know, a pretty thorough conversation. He asked a number of questions about the state of play of the different proposals. And I think it’s fair to say that he was surprised at the direction that some of these were headed,” Hawley said.

Hawley has also talked to Sanders about collaborating to push for this, Politico reports. Sanders, too, has threatened to vote against the whole package if it doesn’t include the direct cash payments.

The proposal includes aid to state and local governments and a temporary supplement to assistance for the unemployed, but not the direct $1,200 stimulus payout to individuals that the CARES Act of last spring included.

Is there any chance this Hawley-Sanders effort could result in something constructive? Here’s one possibility.

A source close to Sanders tells me that one potential strategy going forward might be to try and build support with other senators, such as Hawley, for a vote on an amendment that would add the direct cash payments.

There are some good reasons for wanting to see such a vote. It would force all senators to go on record on whether they support adding the cash payments. It’s likely that most or all Democrats would vote for this amendment, while most Republicans would vote against it.

After all, House Democrats passed a big package in the fall that included such payments. By contrast, Senate Republicans opposed this effort, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) insisting on a far more stingy package. Yet, Senate Republicans had voted for the CARES Act, which did pass overwhelmingly last spring and did include such payments.

So an amendment vote would put senators on the spot as to why they supported these payments before, yet are opposed to it now. Mainly because coronavirus is surging in a potentially even more destructive way, one that could create a dire economic downturn next year.

Many Republicans will no doubt proclaim that they now worry about adding more spending. But this rediscovery of concern about deficits and debt deserves to be greeted with derisive laughter. Republicans embraced Trump’s deficit-ballooning tax cuts that gave the wealthy most of the benefit.

Another reason to want such an amendment vote is that it could potentially clear some political space for a somewhat smaller addition of direct cash payments as an alternative. Samuel Hammond has proposed a direct payment that would primarily benefit families with children, as opposed to all individuals. This would be cheaper and more targeted toward those who are dealing with the crushing burdens that the pandemic is heaping on working parents.

That might be something more Republicans could fall back to supporting, once they’ve gone on record against a direct payment to all individuals.

To be clear, we are extreme skeptics of Hawley’s brand of pro-worker conservative populism. While there is potential for overlap between some Biden proposals and the evolving right-populist agenda particularly when it comes to industrial policy it’s our bet that its champions will be too consumed with positioning themselves to challenge Biden in 2024 for this to result in much of anything.

And there are deep differences between the conservative populist and the progressive economic agendas regarding their most fundamental readings of the challenges facing working people and how to increase their wages and bargaining power.

Still, Hawley is right about the need for direct cash payments in this package. And if his 2024 ambitions can help push this to the forefront of the debate in a constructive way, that’s something we should want to see happen.