WASHINGTON – The Senate wrapped up a rare New Year's Day session with Republicans rejecting President Donald Trump's demand for $2,000 COVID-19 aid checks and overriding his veto of a sweeping defense bill, an unusual one-two rebuke at the end of a chaotic Congress.
Democrats tried a final time to push forward a House-passed bill that would boost the $600 direct aid payments just approved by Congress to $2,000 as Trump demanded for millions of Americans. Republicans blocked a vote, arguing in favor of a more targeted approach.
The rejection of Trump's top priorities, along with the first veto override of his presidency, offered an unusual willingness by the president's party to confront Trump, now in his final days in the White House after losing the November election to President-elect Joe Biden.
Trump lashed out at GOP leadership on Twitter. “Pathetic!!!" he wrote.
But Trump appeared more focused on his next battle to overturn the results of the election during next week's session tallying the Electoral College votes.
Congress is ending a dizzying session, a two-year political firestorm that started with the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history, was riven by impeachment and a pandemic, and now closes with the GOP's rare rebuke of the president.
Democrats vowed to swiftly revive the $2,000 checks after the new Congress is sworn in Sunday.
“President-elect Joe Biden has made clear that the pandemic relief bill that Congress passed is simply a down payment on the work that needs to continue,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the chair of the House Democratic caucus. “We’re going to continue to fight for a $2,000 direct payment check.”
Tensions ran high as senators sniped over slogging through the holiday season at the Capitol.
Trump's demands for additional aid upended the year-end COVID-19 relief and federal funding package, forcing his Republican allies to stand alone as Democrats embraced his push for more direct payments to struggling American households.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer tried, as he has all week, to push the proposal for a vote.
“This is it — the last chance,” Schumer said.
The New York senator said “the only thing standing in the way" is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican senators.
The second-ranking Republican, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, rose to object, saying the proposal was “not an effective way” to meet the needs of Americans.
That drew an angry tweet from Trump.
Trump said the state’s Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, an ally, should pose a primary challenge to Thune, who faces reelection. Noem has previously said she intends to run again for governor.
But presidential tweets that once sparked fear in Republicans may be losing their punch.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told reporters at the Capitol that she found it “very dispiriting at this time, New Year’s Day, that the president would be working to pit Republicans against Republicans.”
Trump's last-minute demands threw Congress into a tumultuous year-end session that deepened the divide within the party between the GOP's new wing of Trump-styled populists wary of defying the president and what had been mainstay conservative views.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who has pledged to lead Trump's challenge to overturn the election during next week's session, was among those senators who also supported Trump's push for COVID-19 aid.
Hawley found himself in common cause with Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, who argued Friday for a vote.
“Bring the bill to the floor,” Sanders said.
Hawley agreed. He said with the president and the House supporting more aid, only the GOP-led Senate stood alone.
“This seems to be the Senate versus the United States of America,” Hawley said.
McConnell has shown little interest in Trump's push to bolster the $600 relief checks just approved in a sweeping year-end package, declaring Congress has provided enough pandemic aid, for now.
He dismissed the proposal, as passed by the House, as “socialism for rich people” who don’t need the federal help.
McConnell proposed his own bill, loaded up with Trump’s other priorities to rein in big tech companies and investigate the 2020 presidential election. But it was not a serious effort, and he did not push it forward for a vote.
The refusal to act on the checks, along with the veto of the defense bill, could very well be among McConnell's final acts as majority leader as two GOP senators in Georgia are in the fights of their political lives in runoff elections next week that will determine which party controls the Senate.
At one point Friday, the Senate's presiding officer mistakenly called Schumer the majority leader.
“Someday soon,” Schumer quipped.
Trump and Biden are poised to campaign in Georgia ahead of Tuesday's election as GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler face Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
It's a chaotic end to a session of Congress that resembles few others for the sheer number of crises and political standoffs as Trump's presidency defined and changed the legislative branch.
Congress opened in 2019 with the federal government shutdown over Trump's demands for money to build the border wall with Mexico. Nancy Pelosi regained the speaker's gavel after Democrats swept to the House majority in the midterm election.
The Democratic-led House went on to impeach the president over his request to the Ukrainian president to “do us a favor” against Biden ahead of the presidential election. The Republican-led Senate acquitted Trump in 2020 of the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
When the pandemic struck, Congress rallied with unusual speed and agreement to pass a $2 trillion relief package, the largest federal intervention of its kind in U.S. history.
The usually bustling halls of Congress became eerily silent most days. Many members tested positive for the virus.
The Congress had few other notable legislative accomplishes and could not agree on how to respond to the racial injustice reckoning that erupted after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement.
Instead, the Senate was primarily focused on filling the courts with Trump's conservative judicial nominees, including confirming his third Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney Barrett.
For now, the smaller $600 checks are being sent to households. Americans earning up to $75,000 qualify for the full payments, which are phased out at higher income levels, and there’s an additional $600 payment per dependent child.