On December 27, 2020, President Donald Trump signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (H.R. 133), preventing a government shutdown. The expansive $2.3 trillion package provides $1.4 trillion for government agencies through next fall and $900 billion in pandemic-related aid. The legislation will provide critical support for the American people and economy to weather the next several months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its passage will also likely influence the politics of the policy agenda for the 117th Congress and the upcoming runoffs in Georgia.
Mr. Trump’s final approval came after he threatened to veto the nearly 5,600-page legislation in a week-long standoff with Congress, arguing that lawmakers should increase the amount of the stimulus payments to Americans from $600 to $2,000 and eliminate unnecessary spending. Reports indicate that the decision to ultimately sign the omnibus spending bill came after discussions between Mr. Trump, his top advisers, and key party leaders. Specifically, they reminded him that his political legacy was on the line, as well as the outcome of the Republican incumbents in the Georgia runoff races that will decide which party will control the Senate.
Lawmakers finally managed to reach an agreement on a followup stimulus bill to March’s massive stimulus package, delivering much-needed financial assistance for American families, workers, and businesses. After months of tense legislative gridlock, Congress voted to overwhelmingly pass the bipartisan COVID-19 relief bill. On December 21, the House of Representatives first cleared the legislation 359-53, and the Senate proceeded to approve the measure in a 92-6 vote. One reason for the long-delayed relief was that both parties struggled to agree on the overall price tag of the package, as Republicans raised concerns over too much spending and Democrats argued that the funding was inadequate. The other narrative behind the prolonged negotiations over the bill was likely each party intently working to prevent the other from claiming a major legislative win before the 2020 Presidential Election.
The final deal resembles the $1 trillion proposal introduced in July by Senate Republicans, which was rejected by House Democrats in favor of the more expensive, House-passed HEROES Act (revised in October). While the new round of stimulus is about half as large as the $2.2 trillion pandemic-aid bill from March, it stands as one of the most expensive and extensive relief bills in recent history, extending and modifying several provisions first enacted in the CARES Act. Notably, the package does not address several policy issues of strong interest to lawmakers, including additional funding for state and local governments and liability protections for businesses reopening during the pandemic. As in the CARES Act, the next tranche of stimulus checks will exclude adult dependents. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) indicated that approximately 15 million Americans in that demographic group, which includes college students and those aged 17 and older with disabilities, will not be eligible. This “Second Stimulus Check Calculator” will provide an estimated figure of the relief an individual and household can expect to receive.
President-elect Joe Biden in a tweet applauded the passage of the bipartisan agreement, adding that Congress will have to work on passing additional assistance in 2021. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) echoed the need to immediately provide more support as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) signaled a “wait-and-see approach,” revealing a potential preview of the agenda’s dynamic in the next Congress.
The stimulus bill’s enactment came nearly a week before the two contested Georgia races that will determine which party controls the Senate, which is currently divided 51-48 in favor of the GOP. On January 5, 2021, incumbent Senators David Perdue (R-GA) and Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) will confront candidates Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and Raphael Warnock (D-GA), respectively, in a dual runoff after none of them received more than 50% of the vote in November. If Democrats win both, then it would significantly help Mr. Biden’s efforts to pass measures through the legislative branch. But if the GOP is able to maintain one seat, then the split government will force Washington to work across the aisle or remain in gridlock.
However, Mr. Trump’s objections to the COVID-19 relief legislation over the size of the stimulus checks could result in a politically problematic situation for Senate Republicans ahead of the runoffs. The Democratic-controlled House passed a measure on December 28 to increase the amount to $2,000 in a 275-134 vote, but the Republican-controlled Senate has not held a vote to pass the measure. Leader McConnell introduced another version of the $2,000 payment legislation, which would also fully repeal Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934 and create a “Bipartisan Advisory Committee” to investigate the integrity of the 2020 General Election. The Kentucky Republican insisted that lawmakers should only consider the larger payments if the bill includes two other issues that Mr. Trump has urged Congress to address. Senate Democrats are unlikely to support the amended bill, and Mr. Biden asserted that electing the two Democratic challengers in the Georgia runoffs would result in the $2,000 becoming law at a campaign event in Atlanta.
Mr. Perdue and Ms. Loeffler have aligned themselves closely with the Trump administration’s agenda, touting his signing of the latest relief bill as a major win for families and businesses in their home state, but have also echoed his call for more relief. Like other Republicans, they face pressure to violate their own party’s routine calls for less government spending, a keystone value of conservatism, in a loyalty test to the President. Finding a middle ground, they voted “yea” for the COVID-19 relief legislation and have subsequently found themselves in an unusual alliance with Democrats, advocating for Mr. Trump’s demand for another round of higher stimulus payouts. Mr. Perdue offered his support for an additional $1,400 to be paid to individual Americans on Fox & Friends, acclaiming it as “the right thing to do.” Mr. Ossoff and Mr. Warnock have publicly expressed support for increasing the amount of the direct payments to Americans, giving their campaigns momentum leading up to the final stretch of the runoffs. While most public polling indicates that both Georgia races are virtually even, one GOP pollster revealed that “It may be too late. Too late for Trump, too late for the economy, too late for Covid, and too late for the Georgia senators.”
On January 4, Mr. Trump held a rally to galvanize support for the two GOP candidates in Georgia. Meanwhile, Democrats will aim to flip Georgia’s Senate seats blue for the first time since 1996. The two Democratic candidates have each raised a historic $100 million-plus in the last couple months, but the Georgia GOP has not lost a statewide runoff election since 1988.
In November, Mr. Perdue held a 2 percentage point advantage over Mr. Ossoff. Mr. Warnock earned roughly 33% of the vote, and Ms. Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) combined for about 46%.
Overall, it appears well within the realm of possibility that the debate over the size of the stimulus checks could impact the highly competitive Georgia runoffs, possibly costing Republicans the majority in the Senate, while giving Mr. Trump his final act for the American people as President.
Key Pandemic Relief Provisions
Below is a summary of key provisions included in the COVID-19 relief legislation, as outlined by congressional summaries and legislative text. A more detailed division-by-division summary of the COVID-19 relief provisions can be found HERE, and text of the comprehensive appropriations package can be found HERE.
Support for Businesses
Other Issue Areas
The figure below depicts a top line breakdown of the funding levels for “selected relief categories” included in the pandemic-aid bill.
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