The majority of Senate Democrats on Friday joined with most of the chamber's Republicans in overriding President Donald Trump's veto of the annual military spending legislation as GOP senators continued to stonewall a clean vote on a House-approved bill to boost coronavirus pandemic relief checks from $600 to $2,000.
The 81-13 vote on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021, which the president vetoed last week, is expected to be the final vote of this congressional session. It is the first veto override of Trump's presidency, which is set to end on January 20 with President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration.
Despite the desperate need for direct relief and Trump's support for the $2,000 checks, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other GOP lawmakers have blocked efforts to hold a vote on the Caring for Americans with Supplemental Help (CASH) Act that passed the Democrat-majority House with support from 44 Republicans.
Trump vetoed the $740 billion NDAA after lawmakers declined to include a repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which digital rights advocates have dubbed "the most important law protecting free speech online." In what critics called a clear attempt to use poison pills to prevent the $2,000 direct payments, McConnell proposed tying the checks to a repeal of Section 230 and an investigation into baseless allegations of voter fraud—another Trump demand.
Progressives in the Senate who have spent months demanding direct relief for Americans have pushed back against that proposal. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), one of the 13 senators who voted against the NDAA override, has repeatedly taken to the chamber's floor in recent days to call out McConnell and others for blocking the relief.
Republicans think I don’t do much for them, but I’m trying to bring Mitch McConnell’s bill to the floor! All I ask is we also vote on the House-passed bill for $2,000 survival checks.
It’s hard for me to understand why Republicans would object to voting on a Republican bill. pic.twitter.com/5R72VDRzQr
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) January 1, 2021
"Over the past four days I have asked, time and again, for the Republican leadership to allow the Senate to vote on legislation that passed the House to provide $2,000 direct payments to working class adults and their kids," Sanders noted in a statement Friday. He emphasized that Trump, Biden, over two-thirds of the House—including dozens of Republicans—and 78% of recently surveyed Americans support the larger checks.
"At a time when so many Americans are facing economic desperation, it is tragic that the Republican leadership has turned their backs on the working families of this country," the senator said of the GOP refusal to hold a clean vote. "When the Biden administration assumes office, the Senate must immediately take up and pass bold legislation which deals with the economic pain that so many Americans are experiencing."
Earlier Friday, Sanders had suggested that senators vote on both the CASH Act and McConnell's competing measure, but Sen. John Cornyn objected (R-Texas) for Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) on Friday also objected to a call from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to vote on what supporters are calling the $2,000 "survival" checks.
Schumer, who voted for the NDAA override, vowed Friday that "Democrats will not stop fighting." However, some critics expressed frustration with Senate Democrats, noting how little support Sanders and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) received in their effort to hold up the NDAA in order to force the chamber to vote on the relief bill.
NDAA veto override passes.
Senate fails to vote on $2000 checks that passed the House AND on Mitch McConnell's own bill.
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Over the past several days, only a handful of Senators even took to the floor to stand alongside Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey in support of $2000 checks. pic.twitter.com/hh5YUyFOjz
— People for Bernie (@People4Bernie) January 1, 2021
The Daily Poster's David Sirota—a longtime Sanders adviser who served as speechwriter for his 2020 presidential campaign—highlighted that message on Twitter Friday:
For those who yelled at us yesterday and insisted Democrats were truly putting up a real fight against the GOP and for the $2,000 checks, I hope you are all watching the Senate floor right now.
— David Sirota (@davidsirota) January 1, 2021
Democrats could've supported @BernieSanders effort to halt the defense bill until there's a vote on $2,000 checks - instead, they are helping Mitch McConnell do this right now on the floor of the Senate. https://t.co/X76ZACcHii pic.twitter.com/biflN9TBi3
— David Sirota (@davidsirota) January 1, 2021
Sanders' move forced McConnell to ask the Senate to pass a formal motion to proceed on the defense bill, which would let Republicans move forward on the Pentagon priority without a vote on the $2,000 checks. The motion created the moment in which Democrats could have stood their ground and cornered the GOP leader.
Instead, as Republicans saber-rattled about the need to pass the defense bill, 41 Democrats obediently voted with McConnell, allowing him to move the defense bill forward without a vote on the checks. That included "yes" votes from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the lead sponsor on a bill to give Americans monthly $2,000 checks during the pandemic. One day before her vote to help McConnell, Harris had called on the Republican leader to hold a vote on her legislation.
As Sirota put it in a Thursday interview with Hill.TV's Krystal Ball: "It's a little wonky, it's a little procedural, but the point here is is that the Democrats had the chance to not allow Mitch McConnell to move forward the defense authorization bill without a vote on $2,000 checks and they ended up instead giving him 41 of the votes for that measure."
While the boost to $2,000 has been blocked by Senate Republicans, the Internal Revenue Service has already begun distributing the $600 direct payments approved by lawmakers and the president. The IRS said in a statement Tuesday that "initial direct deposit payments may begin arriving as early as tonight" and paper checks would be mailed beginning on Wednesday.
The next congressional session will begin at noon on Sunday, though party control of the Senate remains uncertain. The chamber's majority will be determined by a pair of runoff elections in Georgia on January 5.