President Trump says he wants most Americans to receive $2,000 checks from the federal government. So does the Democratic-led House of Representatives, which voted Monday to bump up the total from $600 per individual, as allocated by the $900 billion pandemic stimulus bill that Trump grudgingly signed on Sunday. Even some Senate Republicans are on board, like Missouri’s Josh Hawley and Florida’s Marco Rubio; David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, the two Georgia senators facing a tight runoff election next week, reversed their prior opposition.
But their majority leader, Mitch McConnell, opposes the $2,000 checks, and that is all it takes to grind them to a halt. He blocked a unanimous consent motion on Tuesday that would have immediately sent the measure to Trump’s desk for approval. Instead, McConnell tied the increased stimulus checks to two other wish-list items from the president: an investigation into nonexistent voter fraud and the removal of a legal shield for tech companies. “Those are the three important subjects the president has linked together,” he told the chamber. “This week the Senate will begin a process to bring those three priorities into focus.”
One of those priorities—lifeline payments to low- and middle-income Americans in the middle of a pandemic—seems far more important than two right-wing hobby horses. But those priorities are not McConnell’s priorities. His unspoken goal is to sabotage the push for $2,000 payments altogether by tying it to poison pills for Democrats. In the short term, McConnell gives vulnerable GOP senators like Perdue and Loeffler the chance to support the checks in theory without actually bringing it about. In the long term, he lays the groundwork for resisting any efforts by the incoming Biden administration to actually help people through one of the darkest stretches in modern American history.
This is a familiar role for McConnell. The Kentucky senator has spent his career in the Senate tilting the republic toward the wealthy and well-connected, battling campaign-finance reform measures and good-governance reforms at every turn. He is, as my colleague Alex Pareene once noted, “the great avatar of the decades-long enclosure of our public life by money.” Things that McConnell favors, like stacking the federal courts with like-minded conservative jurists and installing a Trump nominee as inspector general of the federal department that his wife currently runs, move through the Senate at a breakneck pace. Almost everything else succumbs to legislative entropy.
After Congress passed the Cares Act in April, McConnell set out to hamstring further efforts to provide relief for Americans. His weapon of choice was a liability shield that would prevent state and federal regulators from penalizing businesses if they didn’t take sufficient steps to protect their workers from Covid-19 outbreaks. “No bill will be put on the Senate floor that does not have liability protections,” he vowed in July and later declared it a “red line” in negotiations. When he eventually dropped the demand earlier this month so that Congress could pass the latest round of relief, he managed to get Democrats to back down on aid for cash-starved state and local governments in return—a victory for the nihilistic Kentucky senator even in defeat.
President-elect Joe Biden has offered an upbeat vision for how the Republican Party will operate once Trump leaves office next month. He expresses confidence that he will be able to forge bipartisan agreements with the party that spent most of the last two months passively ignoring his electoral victory, if not actively trying to overthrow it. McConnell’s behavior over the past year is proof that no such bargains will come easily, if at all, and that Senate Republicans will not have the epiphany that Biden has predicted.
Indeed, this week’s standoff over Covid-19 relief is a grim portent of what legislative business might look like under a Biden administration. It’s possible that a few moderate and heterodox Republican senators might be willing to use federal coffers to reverse the pandemic’s severe economic and social toll. Democratic senators might try to use procedural maneuvers to push through their own goals, as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders did this week by threatening to filibuster a veto override of the defense budget until a vote on the $2,000 checks is held. And McConnell will use whatever power he can to block relief efforts and any other measures that might provide a political boost to Democrats.
From where does that power spring? McConnell is, after all, just one senator. Part of it comes from his extensive network of support among the conservative donor class, who rightly view him as their guarantor against a federal government that would actually try to improve people’s lives. Part of it stems from the genuine support he receives among his fellow Republican senators, whom he regularly aids in tough reelection battles. Some of the blame can be placed on Senate rules and precedents that centralize extraordinary amounts of legislative power in the majority leader’s office. Unless a majority of senators work to change those rules, basic American governance will continue to be beholden to one man’s cynical whims.
But the greatest provider of McConnell’s power is arithmetic: There are currently more Republican senators than Democratic senators. Unless voters in Georgia decide otherwise on January 5, that basic fact—and McConnell himself—will shape the first four years of Biden’s presidency for the worse. In 2009, the Kentucky senator pledged that he would do everything in his power to make Barack Obama a one-term president. There is no reason to think that he will approach 2021 and a Biden administration any differently.