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Donald Trump's demands run into Mitch McConnell's maneuvers

CNN logo CNN 12/30/2020 Analysis by Zachary B. Wolf, CNN
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie looking at the camera © Pool/Getty Images

In the weirdest of twists at the end of his presidency, President Donald Trump is now in league with Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders over $2,000 Covid-19 relief checks, doing battle with Republican leaders over Pentagon policy and warning the political party he overtook and remade in his own image could soon be dead.

Strange days at the end of the Trump era.

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a solution to anger both Democrats and Trump. It's an elegant form of political chess and a cynical form of governance that will both maintain the status quo of $600 relief checks and dispatch Trump's other demands, leaving the President with nothing to show for his recent tweets.

The standoff over coronavirus relief checks entered a new phase when a bill that passed through the House with mostly Democratic support landed in the GOP-controlled Senate. Most House Republicans opposed it and others, like Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, perhaps unwilling to choose between their mercurial leader and the concerns about profligate spending they'll be dusting off as soon as he leaves office, skipped the House vote altogether.

"Unless Republicans have a death wish, and it is also the right thing to do, they must approve the $2,000 payments ASAP. $600 IS NOT ENOUGH!" Trump said on Twitter shortly after McConnell blocked consideration of the more generous House proposal Democrats sent him.

He punctuated that call again Wednesday morning: "$2000 ASAP!"

McConnell is primed to tie the $2,000 relief check proposal, which could pass, with Trump's unrelated demand to strip tech companies of some liability protection -- a forced marriage of policies that have nothing to do with each other besides Trump's interest that could ensure both measures die in the Senate.

New interest in doing 'the right thing'

That Trump's now concerned with doing "the right thing" on the Covid relief checks after months of downplaying the pandemic has certainly changed political momentum.

Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, running for their political lives before twin January 5 runoff elections in Georgia, have both now endorsed the idea of larger checks, matching their Democratic challengers.

Trump plans to visit Georgia and campaign for Loeffler and Perdue. And Loeffler, at least, said she'll vote any way Trump wants.

"I've stood by the President 100% of the time, I'm proud to do that and I've said absolutely, we need to get relief to Americans now, and I will support that," she told reporters during a campaign stop Tuesday.

Rediscovering the debt


Video: GOP lawmaker: This is why Trump continues election rhetoric (CNN)

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The contours of those races mean everything to McConnell, who very much wants to stay majority leader, but to do so needs Republicans to win at least one race to retain a 51-seat majority in the chamber.

McConnell's also got to contend with the larger number of Republicans in the Senate who will oppose them.

Sen. Pat Toomey, the budget-conscious Pennsylvania Republican, told CNN's Jake Tapper Tuesday that larger checks would add to the national debt and send help to Americans who don't need it. The country's economic problems, he argued, demand more focused relief.

"We've got very acute problems within certain employment groups, right? People who work for restaurants and hotels and travel and entertainment -- devastated," he said. "But we do not have a global macroeconomic depression underway at all. So it makes no sense to be sending this out to everybody who has a pulse."

The Democratic retort to the deficit argument is simple: Why now and why not when Trump was pushing tax cuts?

"Senate Republicans added nearly 2 trillion to deficits to give corporations a massive tax cut," Schumer, the Senate minority leader, said Tuesday. "So I don't want to hear it that it costs too much to help working families getting a check when they're struggling to keep their jobs and pay their family families and live a normal life."

How we got to $600 checks

Clearly Republicans will have to square their concerns about deficit spending with their support for the populist outgoing President who cares mostly about himself.

Former Rep. Mia Love, a CNN analyst, said she does not envy the choice Republicans will have to make.

"They have got to decide whether they're going to get back to the fiscally disciplined Republican Party, whether they're going to continue to follow the President. I do not see any win-win for them to continue to follow the President at all costs," Love said Tuesday.

In fact, it was only after months of negotiations led by Trump's Treasury secretary that Republicans and Democrats agreed on the $600 payments for many Americans that the President signed into law on Sunday.

McConnell, while he notably did not promise a vote on the larger checks, said the Senate would consider the matter in some way this week, along with Trump's calls to undo what's known as "Section 230," a piece of US telecommunications law that shields big tech companies from some lawsuits.

Watch the clock

What McConnell did promise is a vote Wednesday to override Trump's veto of the annual bill that authorizes Pentagon policy, although Sen. Bernie Sanders has indicated he'll try to hold up that defense bill without a vote on the larger checks, putting him and Trump strangely in league on that one issue. Trump wanted to tie that defense bill to the tech company issue. Now McConnell will tie it to the relief checks instead.

Time could be on McConnell's side since this Congress ends on January 5. If the Senate can't or won't act by then, all these measures would need new votes.

McConnell's solution may not satisfy Trump, who's already been described as moody during a winter holiday at Mar a Lago, despite golfing every day. Sources told CNN's Kate Bennett the President is angry about cosmetic changes to the comparatively small digs he'll soon call home, and wondering why there aren't more world leaders and VIPs angling to call on him as he nears the end of his administration.

He can look to one piece of good news for his ego. Defeat at the polls didn't keep him from becoming the most admired man in America for the first time, according to an annual Gallup survey released Tuesday. It has, for years, been Barack Obama, Trump's predecessor, whose wife Michelle, is still the most admired woman. Gallup noted Republicans were united behind Trump in the poll, while Democrats were split behind Obama, President-elect Joe Biden, and Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Biden and Fauci will soon be working together and the President-elect on Tuesday announced his plan to ramp up distribution of vaccines as the US falls behind schedule in deploying millions of doses to Americans around the country. That'll change when he takes office, Biden promised, promising to "move heaven and Earth."

"This is going to be the greatest operational challenge we've ever faced as a nation," he said. "But we're going to get it done. But it's going to take a vast new effort that's not yet underway."

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