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There’s a reason that Washington is weary right now.
The American death toll from COVID-19 hit the grim marker of 300,000 as the week began. Congress needs to figure out how to keep the lights on or the government shuts down this weekend. A critical defense bill awaits President Donald Trump’s signature — or veto — before Christmas Day. Legions of government employees are more than ready to stop checking work email — just as soon as its top leaders can patch together some version of a coronavirus relief package that they have been chasing since March. Talks went late last night and picked again up today. While it looks like lawmakers are closing in on a deal, staffers also checked just how flexible their bosses’ plane tickets could be if things slip into the weekend, or beyond.
Against this backdrop, an unlikely pair of caucus crashers have done their best to fight their own parties’ leadership teams to demand another round of direct payments to Americans. Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Bernie Sanders of Vermont share very, very little of their political DNA, but they each came to the conclusion that those stimulus checks are both politically popular and financially necessary. So the young-man-in-a-hurry conservative and the self-described democratic socialist have joined forces on perhaps their lone spot of agreement, becoming 2020’s oddest Washington couple.
Don’t confuse their potential success with bipartisanship. Hawley and Sanders come at the stimulus checks from completely different camps, but recognize their shared goal matters more than their ideological footholds. You’re never going to see them team up on, say, health care or foreign policy. But they found this one thing — seemingly by accident — and they recognized that they are, to borrow Hillary Clinton’s slogan, stronger together.
Hawley and Sanders are the rare breed of political animal who understands policy enough to wield it for political gain. Hawley, a Stanford and Yale Law graduate who clerked for the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice John Roberts, is currently the youngest member of the Senate, and not a shy one at that. Like another well-pedigreed Midwesterner, 40-year-old Hawley is just two years on the job and already contemplating his own national run in 2024. It’s not every day that someone so new to the Senate lands a star turn on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” or persuades the White House to back his demands, in this care, for stimulus checks.
Sanders, too, has his own sharp knife here. A two-time contender for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, the University of Chicago-educated activist racked up a combined tally approaching 23 million votes. Sanders is a declared independent who caucuses with the Democrats, but he’s a major player within the progressive movement’s grassroots base and can cause a headache when he sets his mind to something. With allies like The Squad and like-minded rabble-rousers, he can gum things up when he wants.
As leaders went to bed last night, the Hawley-Sanders chase of $1,200 checks for American adults earning $75,000 or less and $500 per child seemed troubled, but they both dug in and are openly defying their party leaders who’d rather skip it in this round of relief. By midday today, they seemed to have emerged some shade of victorious — at the cost of Democrats’ pursuit of cash for troubled state and local budgets and Republicans’ efforts to shield businesses from lawsuits. The check sum may slip to $600 or $700, Sen. John Thune said Wednesday, although the exact number seems to still be part of the haggling.
Any win may cost Hawley and Sanders dirty looks at party lunches when they start up again, but this is pure political gold for their brands. Hawley is sage in noting the cash payments are popular and are boosting his cross-over appeal. Sanders’ base loves that he’s fighting for them — and has the likes of AOC and company in the House joining.
No one loves the current iteration of this relief package and even fewer want to still be dealing with this. Last week, Congress extended its own deadline to get something passed by a week after McConnell announced that an earlier bipartisan version of the bill was too expensive because it included dollars for state and local governments that are on the verge of melting down. Democrats, perhaps more persuasively, have called a Republican-sought liability shield a non-starter.
But for millions of Americans whose jobs vanished as a pandemic appeared, the details of Washington’s winners and losers don’t matter. What counts for them is this gnarly reality: inaction from the Capitol forced state unemployment offices to assume Congress couldn’t get its act together, thus prompting their unemployment systems to end temporary benefits starting next week. There won’t exactly be a glut of state bureaucrats working the week of Christmas to reprogram the systems.
A lot of people are likely to be very relieved that an unlikely duo of ideological enemies in Congress appears on track to secure more cash for Americans. There’s precedent for this kind of success: on big questions vexing Washington, it sometimes takes that reach across the aisle to pull together an answer. It took ideological foes like John McCain and Russ Feingold to find their one unifying passion to change the campaign finance system. Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush remade education policy with No Child Left Behind. Bob Dole and Daniel Patrick Monyihan saved Social Security for a generation. What Hawley and Sanders appear to have done is nothing on the scale of those landmark pivots in policy — that is, unless you’re one of the millions of Americans whose survival hinges on this direct cash.
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