McConnell is nervous about Georgia — here's how Democrats can use that to their advantage
A deal for a new round of recovery funds appeared to be just around the corner on Wednesday, as signals emerged from Congress that Democrats and Republicans are coming closer to consensus on a new spending bill.
One quote from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggests why. According to both CNN and Politico reporter Jake Sherman, McConnell told his colleagues on a call Wednesday: "Kelly and David are getting hammered" on the issue of direct payments to families
The coronavirus pandemic has continued since the spring, and has in fact reached its worst heights yet. So many have argued that the federal government should send out payments once again to ameliorate the ongoing economic damage. The first payments were sent in the form of $1,200 checks from the U.S. Treasury in the spring under the CARES Act. Kelly and David, of course, refer to Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, the Georgia Republicans in tight runoffs with Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock scheduled for Jan. 5.
McConnell resisted passing another relief package for months even after many of the CARES Act provisions expired, but it's clear he's worried about the Georgia races. The two seats up for grabs could determine control of the Senate. If Ossoff and Warnock both win, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris's tie-breaking vote will give Democrats a de facto majority, essentially relegating McConnell to minority leader status.
The initial round of recovery checks in the spring were wildly popular, and McConnell seems to realize Georgia voters are paying attention. Many in McConnell's caucus are reluctant to spend much more money at all — not just on direct payments, but also expanded unemployment insurance and aid to state and local government — but with voters already casting ballots in the Georgia runoffs, the pressure on the majority leader is real. (The final bill will also likely include several hundred billion dollars of support for businesses, which the GOP is more comfortable with.)
That leaves Democrats with two big opportunities. First, they can leverage McConnell's anxiety to pressure the GOP to pass the much-needed recovery bill now. They're currently on this path already, though it's yet to be seen how successful they'll be at getting a solid deal in the end.
But the second opportunity, and one area in which Democratic leadership has really been lacking, is creating a clear message around the recovery package and using it to increase their chances of winning the Georgia runoffs.
Warnock and Ossoff have been focusing on the issue of direct payments in their Georgia campaigns — that's why McConnell fears Loeffler and Perdue are getting "hammered." But in this situation, Democrats might end up becoming victims of their own success. What happens if, under Democratic pressure, McConnell allows a decent recovery bill to pass? Do Perdue and Loeffler get a boost in approval heading into the runoffs, foreclosing the possibility of a Democratic majority and thus the prospect of any additional needed fiscal support?
The truth is Democrats have been pushing for much more generous federal spending to addres the economic crisis for months. It's barely talked about anymore, but the House passed the HEROES Act in May, which would have totaled $3 trillion in additional spending, much of it directly to families. McConnell, on the other hand, didn't pass anything, and constantly demanded that Democrats lower the price tag substantially. Eventually, Democrats came down to $2.2 trillion, but no deal was struck before the election. Now, the spending bill that is anticipated in the coming days will probably cost about $900 billion.
Democrats need to make this series of events clear to the American people — especially voters in Georgia, who hold the fate of the Senate in their hands. That takes organizing, strategizing, and having members of the caucus on a unified message — something that the Democrats are distinctively weak at, despite the crucial importance of message discipline.
If direct payments are included in the coming bill, they're expected to be stingier than the first round. Instead of $1,200, reports suggest most individuals will get something more like $600 or $700. Democrats should make clear to the voters that the reason the checks aren't bigger is because of McConnell's demands and that only by stripping his title of majority leader will Congress have the power to do more.
The best outcome for the Democrats might actually be if the direct payments are left out of the final bill. While these funds are important and would help families, they're likely not as important as the funding for unemployment insurance or struggling businesses. Household savings have actually increased substantially this year on average, so if funds are constrained — which they are, because of GOP insistence — it makes sense to focus the money where it is needed the most. But Democrats could also argue that, if they win both seats in Georgia, they'll have the ability to pass additional payments once Biden is inaugurated.
Unfortunately, though, Democrats haven't been skilled at crafting the messaging on this issue to their advantage. When, after all, was the last time anyone heard mention of the HEROES Act? But McConnell's nervousness suggests Democrats have a real opening here — if only they can take it.
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