Those Democratic victories flipped control of the Senate to the Democrats, giving them a monopoly on power in the nation’s capital for the first time since President Barack Obama’s first term.
“One of the first things that I want to do when our new senators are seated is deliver the $2,000 checks to the American families,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) — who will become majority leader — told reporters Wednesday.
The $2,000 checks have become a flash point since President Trump embraced them in December, rejecting a lower figure negotiated by his own administration. The House approved the higher number but the Senate rejected it. Biden wavered on the issue, but ended up explicitly promising Georgia voters that should Warnock and Ossoff win, people would get the checks.
“Their election will put an end to the block in Washington — that $2,000 stimulus check — that money would go out the door immediately, to help people who are in real trouble,” Biden said in Georgia in the closing days of the Senate campaigns. “Think about what it will mean to your lives — putting food on the table, paying rent.”
Biden’s promise to enact $2,000 checks came despite a fierce debate among Democratic economists and lawmakers about the merits of the payments, which some critics argue sends too much money to Americans who do not need it. Ossoff and Warnock both pledged while on the campaign trail to enact $2,000 stimulus payments if elected.
“People need covid relief. We ought to pass a $2,000 stimulus,” Warnock said Wednesday on MSNBC.
It’s unclear how quickly Congress could actually vote on the checks. That depends on when the elections in Georgia are certified, which could be delayed by GOP challenges, making the timing uncertain.
Additionally, it’s not clear whether the House and Senate would vote on the checks as stand-alone legislation, or as part of a larger package that could also include items like state and local aid and an extension of unemployment benefits. Congressional aides cautioned that discussions with the Biden team over how to proceed were in early stages.
Either way, the $2,000 checks could be an early marker in a wide and aggressive economic agenda Biden and congressional Democrats hope to deliver at a moment when the coronavirus pandemic is raging and the economy is teetering on the brink.
The first two years of Obama’s presidency brought the nation the Affordable Care Act. Biden, then vice president, will now have the opportunity to enact an ambitious agenda of his own.
Infrastructure spending, climate change legislation, expanding health-care benefits, student debt forgiveness and more may all be on the table. With control of both chambers, Democrats can use special budget rules to push through massive legislation with a simple majority in the Senate, instead of the 60 votes usually required for major bills. That’s how Republicans enacted their $1.5 trillion tax cut bill in the first year of Trump’s presidency with no Democratic votes.
“Together, in under two weeks when we inaugurate the new Biden-Harris Administration, a unified Democratic Party will advance extraordinary progress For The People,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “We will pursue a science and values-based plan to crush the virus and deliver relief to struggling families.”
Democrats’ slim majorities will limit their ambitions and likely exacerbate infighting between liberals and centrists about how far to go. Their 222-211 House majority is the smallest margin of control either party has had for years. The Georgia wins produce a Senate divided 50-50 between the parties, with Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris as the tie-breaking vote for Democrats.
Nevertheless, liberals wasted no time Wednesday demanding quick action on their priorities.
“Joe Biden and the entire Democratic Party were incredibly clear of the stakes here, starting with the $2,000 checks and massive economic relief policies that put money and resources in the hands of the people,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, a liberal advocacy group. “They’re now going to have to deliver that, starting with the checks on day one.”
Renewed signs of economic deterioration will amplify pressure on Democrats to act. Private payrolls shed about 123,000 jobs in December, a startling drop that marked the worst report by the ADP Research Institute in months. The same report showed the number of jobs increasing by more than 300,000 in November. Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG, warned in a note to investors that the “dark days of the labor market” from the spring have returned.
“America’s great jobs machine ran into a wall of rising coronavirus cases and state lockdowns, which puts the entire economic recovery from recession at risk,” Rupkey said. “The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression isn’t over yet. Bet on it.”
Biden will also have to focus on reining in the rampaging pandemic, including more money for vaccines and ensuring they go out more quickly.
For their part, Senate Republicans were just beginning to grapple with the implications of their relegation into minority status. The development came as Congress convened Wednesday to certify Biden’s presidential win, a process multiple Republicans were trying to challenge, though their efforts were doomed to fail even before the proceedings were derailed by mob violence.
The Democratic victories in Georgia mean the Senate’s agenda will be “totally changed,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “They’re going to have the ability to run things from the House and, you know, shift the emphasis.”
Congress in March approved more than $2 trillion in emergency economic aid in response to the pandemic and another $900 billion in December. Those aid package have funneled hundreds of billions to small businesses, jobless Americans and others hurt by the coronavirus pandemic. The first round of stimulus payments included $1,200 per adult, as well as $500 per child, and were within months disbursed to more than 100 million American households.
In late December Trump almost overnight helped generate sizable Republican support for the $2,000 checks even though they stand in stark contrast to long-standing conservative skepticism of government spending and direct cash transfer programs.
The president nearly upended negotiations on economic relief when he ridiculed Congress, as well as his own treasury secretary, for proposing stimulus payments worth $600 per person. Schumer and Pelosi raced to demonstrate Democratic support for $2,000 payments as well, aiming to show the bipartisan support for the idea.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to put legislation for the $2,000 checks on the Senate floor, preventing the measure from advancing. But McConnell was undermined by a coalition of about a half-dozen Republican Senators who said they supported the large payments, including both Georgia Republicans up for reelection and possible 2024 GOP presidential candidates including Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). The bill passed by the House for $2,000 payments was supported by more than two dozen Republicans as well.