Georgia’s Republican U.S. senators were ready to take a victory lap this week after the overwhelming passage of a bipartisan $900 billion coronavirus relief package. Now they must contend with demands from President Donald Trump to sweeten the pot that play directly into their rivals’ criticism.
Trump’s veto of a critical military spending bill offered another dilemma for U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who are trying not to alienate the president while also seeking to keep his loyal base of voters energized.
Trump’s video late Tuesday urging Congress to “amend this (coronavirus relief) bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 (stimulus payments) to $2,000” was an unwelcome development for the two Republicans, who planned to highlight the package in the closing days of the Jan. 5 runoffs for control of the U.S. Senate against Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
Instead, the two incumbents must choose between dueling factions: The senators can join a coalition of liberal Democrats and the president in pushing for more generous incentives, or they can stick with congressional leaders and remain supportive of a measure they both backed earlier this week as a crucial economic boost.
At an event Wednesday in Cobb County, Loeffler accused Democrats of “playing politics” and said her support for Trump’s new demand would rest on whether other, unspecified parts of the package are cut.
“I certainly support redirecting any wasteful spending to be very targeted at families and businesses who have been impacted by this virus through no fault of their own,” she said.
Pressed directly on whether she would support increasing the stimulus checks to $2,000, Loeffler said: “I’ll certainly look at supporting it if it repurposes wasteful spending for that, yes.”
Perdue, who cut an ad Tuesday praising the virtues of the relief package, declined repeated requests through a spokesman for comment on his stance. He ducked the chance to debate Ossoff and refused to take questions from local media at recent events, including a joint rally Sunday when Loeffler addressed a bank of television cameras while he took selfies with supporters.
Trump’s eleventh-hour pivot echoes exactly the case that Democrats have made on the campaign trail. Both said they would have voted for the relief measure, but they criticized Republicans for not ensuring it included $2,000 checks and more aid for local governments.
“I would have voted for the bipartisan package because people need help right now, but $600 is a joke. It’s a joke. It’s an insult,” Ossoff said Wednesday at a campaign event in Atlanta.
“It’s a slap in the face,” he said, “to people who are hurting right now who can’t put food on the table, afford prescriptions, make the car payment, make the house payment — through no fault of their own — while the U.S. Senate has blocked relief for the last eight months.”
Warnock’s campaign issued a statement along the same lines: “Donald Trump is right, Congress should swiftly increase direct payments to $2,000.”
The president’s veto of the military spending bill, which he said he nixed in part because it didn’t repeal a legal shield for social media firms he’s often criticized, sets up a different sort of quandary for the Republican incumbents.
The measure passed by an overwhelming majority in both legislative chambers, and both the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate plan to override the veto next week.
Both Loeffler and Perdue voted for the must-pass spending measure, though neither have said whether they’d support what could be the first veto override of Trump’s presidency. On Wednesday, before Trump issued his veto, Loeffler said she’d “certainly have a look at it, if that moment comes.”
“I’ve been proud to support our military, our military investment here in Georgia,” she said, adding: “I will always stand with our men and women in the military as they keep us safe and defend our freedom.”
A new vote on coronavirus relief, meanwhile, could come as early as Thursday, when U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to bring up a stand-alone bill that would finance the $2,000 direct payments, which could be passed by unanimous consent. U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House, hasn’t taken a position yet.
“If the president truly wants to join us in $2,000 payments, he should call upon Leader McCarthy to agree to our unanimous consent request,” Pelosi wrote Wednesday in a letter to colleagues. “The entire country knows that it is very urgent for the president to sign this bill, both to provide the coronavirus relief and to keep government open.”
Staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this article.
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com