Dem Senator Warns: If the Party Wants to Lose Georgia, Break the Promise Made in the Runoff

Sen. Jeff Merkley said he would advise President Joe Biden that further targeting the stimulus checks "is not the place to compromise."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) questions witnesses during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill December 03, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., questions witnesses during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on Dec. 3, 2019, in Washington. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Democrats risk throwing away a Senate Georgia race in two years if they go back on their promise to deliver direct aid after campaigning on the issue, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said on Thursday afternoon.

The Democratic closing argument in the pivotal Georgia Senate runoffs, which elected Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, was that they would approve $2,000 of direct aid blocked by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., if they took control of the Senate. But Democrats are now floating the idea that millions of people promised those checks should not actually get them, arguing that the relief should be more narrowly targeted to those who earned less than $50,000 on their latest tax returns. President Joe Biden has since confirmed that he’s open to the move.

“We need to target that money so folks making $300,000 don’t get any windfall,” Biden said Friday.  “But if you’re a family that’s a two-wage earner, each of the parents — one making 30 grand, one making 40 or 50 — maybe that’s a little more than well, yeah, they need the money, and they’re going to get it. And here’s what I won’t do. I’m not cutting the size of the checks. They’re going to be $1,400 period.”

Biden “floated this trial balloon about changing the targeted audience for the direct payments,” Merkley said in an interview for The Intercept’s podcast Deconstructed. “I would advise him, if he were to ask me, that is not the place to compromise, that if you want to see us lose a Senate race in Georgia in two years, then modify the promise made — break the promise made during the Georgia runoff.”

The first chunk of the stimulus checks, $600 that went out in late December and early January, was targeted to individuals who earned $75,000 or less or married couples filing jointly who earned up to $150,000 on their 2019 tax returns, with the payment gradually tapering off for those earning more.

The new proposal would begin the tapering at $50,000 instead, cutting off potentially half of those who got the first piece of the $2,000. Restricting the payments would mean that millions of people promised the aid if Democrats won would be left stiffed.

Some compromises around the edges of the $1.9 trillion stimulus are fine, Merkley said, but breaking such a high-profile promise would be a unique betrayal. “There’s a lot in that bill where you could argue a little more here or a little less there, but I think when you have made that a central point of a key election and narrowly won that election, we all, together, better deliver on that promise.”

At a rally in Atlanta ahead of runoffs, Biden directly connected the elections to the forthcoming aid. “By electing Jon and the Rev. [Warnock], you can make an immediate difference in your own lives and the lives of the people all across this country, because their election will put an end to the block in Washington on that $2,000 stimulus check, that money that will go out the door immediately,” Biden said. “If you send Sen. [David] Perdue and [Kelly] Loeffler back to Washington, those checks will never get there. It’s just that simple. The power is literally in your hands.”

He was passionate about the stakes. “The debate over $2,000 isn’t some abstract debate in Washington. It’s about real lives. Your lives. The lives of good, hardworking Americans, and if you’re like millions of Americans all across this country, you need the money, you need the help, and you need it now. Look, Georgia: There’s no one in America with more power to make that happen than you, the citizens of Atlanta, the citizens of Georgia,” he said.

It made for a powerful moment — and could make for an even more powerful campaign ad against Sen. Raphael Warnock when he runs for reelection to a full term in 2022, a race that has effectively already started. (Warnock won a special election to fill out the term of Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, who retired after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. That term runs through 2022.)

The direct aid is part of a stimulus package now being moved through the Senate budget reconciliation process. The package also includes aid to state and local governments, money for vaccine distribution, expanded unemployment benefits, and subsidies for health care coverage.

On Thursday, the Senate held a series of nonbinding votes on amendments to the budget resolution. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has been a lead advocate of tightening eligibility for the aid, filed a vague amendment that passed with an overwhelming majority.

The amendment does the political work Manchin wants it to do, putting Democrats on record against giving handouts to the wealthy, but it doesn’t get specific. It allows the chair of the Senate Budget Committee to “revise the allocations … relating to targeting economic impact payments to Americans who are suffering from the effects of COVID-19, including provisions to ensure upper-income taxpayers are not eligible, by the amounts provided in such legislation for those purposes.” The amendment stipulates that the committee chair, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has the discretion to decrease, but not increase, the scope of who gets the payments.

Sanders voted yes on Manchin’s amendment but specified that he does not support lowering the threshold. The legislation will first be written by the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Merkley’s home state colleague, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., before being sent to the Budget Committee. If the Finance Committee sends Sanders a bill dictating a lower threshold, his hands would be partially tied (though not entirely, as the chair retains discretion in spite of the nonbinding amendments).

The political problem for Democrats who want to go cheap on the payments is compounded by the way the $2,000 is being paid out.

The political problem for Democrats who want to go cheap on the payments is compounded by the way the $2,000 is being paid out. In December, Congress approved $600 in aid, though former President Donald Trump threatened to veto it, saying it should be $2,000 instead. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., quickly filed an amendment to add $1,400 to the already approved $600 payments, and it was passed by the House. McConnell, then the Senate majority leader, blocked the amendment, in a blunder that likely cost him control of the upper chamber.

In Georgia, Democrats ran on the promise of getting that $2,000 check out the door immediately if they won both Senate races. But even after the $600 check had been sent out, Democrats continued to refer to a $2,000 check, leading some progressives in Congress to argue that Biden should now approve a full $2,000, for a total of $2,600.

From a political standpoint, if tens of millions of people get $1,400 checks, Democrats are still well-positioned to benefit from having delivered on Ocasio-Cortez’s amendment. But if tens of millions who got $600 from Trump get stiffed by Biden on the remainder — while watching millions of others get their checks — the damage could be severe enough to cost Democrats the Senate.

Democrats control 50 Senate seats, with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as the tiebreaker, meaning they can’t afford to lose any to retain control of the chamber. Out of nearly 4.5 million votes cast in the Georgia runoff, Warnock won by just 93,272.

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