Charles Dickens sketched a dire portrait of Ebenezer Scrooge as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” who would “edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.” The author gave us his Scrooge as the very embodiment of a certain cruel disregard for the misery of others that manifests in the most loathsome of individuals.
Yet the growling miser of A Christmas Carol can’t hold a candle to Mitch McConnell, the heartless Senate majority leader who has gone out of his way to steal the promise of genuine relief by demanding a miserly and misdirected “stimulus” measure.
The long-delayed legislation was finally approved Monday night, just four days before a pandemic Christmas characterized not merely by rising coronavirus death tolls but by reports of millions of displaced families struggling with hunger and homelessness. It included bare-necessities funding for health care, nutrition, rental assistance, child care, broadband, schools, small businesses, and the Postal Service. However, because of Senate Republicans, the measure failed to provide a lifeline for state and local governments, adequate unemployment insurance, or survival checks to get suffering Americans through what President-elect Joe Biden warns will be a “long, dark winter.”
The constraining of direct cash payments to half the level of the $1,200 per individual relief delivered by last spring’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, was McConnell’s cruelest “victory.” “McConnell is responsible for this failure of a deal. Everyone else in the room wanted higher stimulus checks,” declared Representative Ro Khanna, the California Democrat who has emerged as the House’s most ardent advocate for needed payments. “$600 in no way addresses the scope of this crisis.”
But that was all that seemed possible until Tuesday evening, when President Trump decried the stimulus measure he had been expected to sign as a “disgrace. Trump demanded a rewrite with a lot more money for cash payments. “I’m asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000 or $4,000 per couple,” the president announced in a video released on Twitter. “I’m also asking Congress to immediately get rid of the wasteful and unnecessary items in this legislation or to send me a suitable bill.”
Trump wasn’t being noble. He was messing with McConnell for refusing to play along with the president’s scheming to get Congress to reject 2020 election results from battleground states that went for Democrat Joe Biden. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called Trump’s bluff and embraced the $2,000 proposal.
That put McConnell in a bind, as the prospect of meaningful money going to people who need it was brought back into play—by a Republican president who was mad at a Republican majority leader. Now, as Representative Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) says, it seems like McConnell is “the only roadblock to getting the American people $2,000 checks.”
It’s hard to say where this debate goes next. What we do know is that working Americans need more than a one-time payment of $600.
Khanna has championed a model for direct relief that would guarantee a $2,000 monthly payment to every qualifying American for up to 12 months. That is the right response, if perhaps a politically challenging one in a divided Congress with a cautious House and a cruel Senate.
Right now, progressives are seizing every opening. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders responded to Trump’s Tuesday night intervention by recalling, “I first introduced a bill to provide a $2,000 direct payment with Senator Kamala Harris and Senator Ed Markey seven months ago. Now, Mr. President, get Mitch McConnell and your Republican friends to stop opposing it and we can provide working class Americans with $2,000. Let’s do it.”
During the long negotiations over the latest stimulus package, Sanders joined Josh Hawley, a conservative Republican from Missouri, in pushing a plan to provide cash payments of $1,200 for individuals who make up to $75,000. Hawley said, “What I’m proposing is what every senator has supported already, this year.… What I’m proposing will give working folks in my state and across this country a shot…at getting back up on their feet.”
Sanders echoed the call, saying, “If this country means anything, if the US government means anything, it means that we cannot turn our backs on that suffering, and that we cannot leave Washington for the holidays to go back to our families unless we address the pain and anxiety of other families throughout this country.”
McConnell and his allies objected. So it was that, while the Congress on Monday approved more than a dozen spending bills that included tax breaks for corporations and full funding of the military-industrial complex, it scrimped on cash payments to Americans who are looking at the prospect of the bleakest Christmas since the Great Depression. With the denial of funding for state and local governments, and McConnell’s rejection of real relief, the warping of the process added up to what Khanna describes as “shameful way to head into the holidays.”
Trump’s new demand has reopened the debate. It could force Congress to free up more money. But rest assured that McConnell will be on the watch for ways to deny working Americans the relief they need for as long as he has the power to do so.
If McConnell’s Republicans retain control of the Senate, the promise of a better 2021 will remain at risk. That’s why the Georgia January 5 runoffs for a critical pair of US Senate seats are so damn consequential. They will decide whether two of McConnell’s most crooked and conniving collaborators, Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, are able to maintain the Republican majority. If both Loeffler and Perdue are defeated by challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the Senate will be split 50-50 and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris will tip the balance to the Democrats—disempowering McConnell.
An assessment earlier this week from the Working Families Party, which has organized canvassing in Georgia, put the politics of the runoffs in perspective. “Mitch McConnell has blocked any relief for working families—and his loyal foot soldiers Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have been right by his side. They took the proposal for another round of $1,200 checks and watered it down to a measly $600. They held up negotiations to try and get tax breaks and massive giveaways to corporations. And they removed critical aid to states and cities that is needed to prevent massive job losses next year,” explained the WFP team. “There’s only one way forward if we want to see the next Congress pass the type of emergency care we need—and that’s to put an end to Mitch McConnell’s majority in 15 days.”
When Scrooge responded to pleas to ease the misery of the poor by dismissively growling, “It’s not my business,” Dickens conjured an otherworldly intercession. It took visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to redeem Scrooge, who would eventually conclude that the poor were, indeed, his business. He was a better man for it, becoming, Dickens tells us, “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”
But McConnell has yet to provide any evidence of an impulse toward human decency. For that, he’ll need more than a temper-tantrum push for Trump. On the chance that the majority leader is not confronted by spirits on Christmas Eve, the voters of Georgia should be prepared to intervene on January 5.