A growing chorus of progressive lawmakers, advocacy groups, political commentators, and policy experts is forcefully pushing back against an effort by Senate Democrats to significantly narrow eligibility for a new round of $1,400 direct payments, a move that could deny financial relief to struggling families who received both of the stimulus checks approved during Trump's presidency.
Ignoring warnings that excluding millions of people from the full $1,400 would be politically disastrous—as well as morally unacceptable and economically foolish—President Joe Biden said this week that he would be "OK with" lowering the annual income cutoff for the checks. Biden discussed limiting eligibility for the payments with Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) at the White House on Wednesday.
"Try explaining to the millions who will end up with less why this was done, why White House economists sided with the Chamber of Commerce and the president decided to break a campaign promise while attracting no Republican support for his plan."
—David Dayen, The American Prospect
With Biden's go-ahead, Senate Democrats are currently considering a plan under which— according to the Washington Post—only individuals earning $50,000 a year or less, heads of household earning $75,000 or less, and married couples earning a combined $100,000 or less would be eligible for full payments. Eligible parents would also receive $1,400 per child under the plan, which has not been finalized.
"Let's be really, really clear. Doing this will cost Democrats control of the Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024," Robert Cruickshank, campaign director at advocacy group Demand Progress, said of the push for stricter targeting. "There is nobody out there in America aside from a few wonks who want to limit these checks. It is a colossally bad idea."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was among those who cautioned that further restricting eligibility for the new round of payments could disqualify people who benefited from previous checks, which went in full to individuals earning up to $75,000 a year, heads of household earning up to $112,500, and married couples earning up to $150,000.
"I understand the desire to ensure those most in need receive checks," Wyden told the Post's Jeff Stein, "but families who received the first two checks will be counting on a third check to pay the bills."
In an episode of his podcast released Thursday, Matt Bruenig, founder of the People's Policy Project, similarly warned that there could be "a big chunk of people who got the first Trump check, who got the second Trump check, and then they're like, 'Alright guys, a third check's going out.' And then they don't get it because they had an income that was... low enough to qualify for the Trump checks but not low enough to qualify for the Biden checks."
"It seems like it's going to be a disaster," said Bruenig.
In the eyes of progressives, the push to limit eligibility for the $1,400 payments—an approach advocated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—represents yet another backpedal by Biden and the Democratic Party from their vow to swiftly deliver $2,000 payments upon taking control of the U.S. Senate.
The Biden team has contended that the $600 checks approved during the final weeks of Trump's presidency were a "down payment" on the $2,000 promise that would be completed by a new round of $1,400 checks—a narrative that many progressives say is misleading, given Democrats' clear messaging in the run-up to the Senate runoffs in Georgia last month.
While the Biden White House has said it is not open to lowering the size of the proposed $1,400 checks—as some Senate Republicans have suggested—the eligibility framework that Senate Democrats are considering would gradually phase out the payments for individuals who earn more than $50,000 a year, meaning that some middle-class people who have been hit hard by the pandemic would ultimately receive less than $1,400.
"I don't care how super-slick you think your defense of a Democratic retreat on $2,000 checks is, nobody will buy it," The Daily Poster's David Sirota tweeted Thursday. "People are facing starvation, eviction, and bankruptcy. The party will deliver or it should expect a voter backlash."
Shannon Stagman, co-lead organizer of Empire State Indivisible, said Wednesday that the $50,000 income threshold Senate Democrats are weighing is "comically low" and the party "should be ashamed of suggesting it."
"This doesn't even comport with their own argument about these checks," Stagman added. "If the $1,400 check is the second in a two-part payment, you can't change the terms before you deliver it."
Citing a tax policy expert from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, the Post reported Thursday that under the eligibility framework Senate Democrats are currently considering, "about 71 percent of Americans would get the full benefits and another 17 percent would get the partial benefit."
"This is less than Biden's initial proposal for the payments to go to individuals earning up to $75,000 and married couples earning up to $150,000, which would result in about 85 percent getting full payments," the Post noted.
"What we have got to do is understand this crisis impacts the middle class, it impacts the working class, it impacts lower-income people. We are in this together."
—Sen. Bernie Sanders
The American Prospect's David Dayen argued Thursday that the effort to further curtail relief checks that are already targeted has little to no discernible upside for Democrats and potentially massive political and economic downsides.
"Who is this for?" Dayen asked. "Marc Goldwein of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that the more tightly targeted checks would cost $420 billion, as opposed to $465 billion. That's what we're fighting over? $45 billion in a $1.9 trillion package, to deny middle-class people (almost definitionally speaking; they make just over the median income) relief? That's the holdup?"
"There's no economic case for this narrowing, and politically it's suicidal," Dayen wrote. "You're taking the most popular part of the American Rescue Plan and chipping away at it for no good reason. Try explaining to the millions who will end up with less why this was done, why White House economists sided with the Chamber of Commerce and the president decided to break a campaign promise while attracting no Republican support for his plan. In the name of technocratic 'targeting,' you're just cutting the benefit, and doing it for reasons of politics. It's nonsensical."
The ongoing and intensifying conflict over the direct payments comes as Senate Democrats are moving ahead with their plan to pass a coronavirus relief package through reconciliation, a process under which a unified Democratic caucus can pass legislation without any support from Republican lawmakers—a fact that has made the majority party's effort to roll back eligibility for the checks all the more frustrating to progressives.
"What constituency wants this?" asked HuffPost's Zach Carter. "I'm generally skeptical about the political value of GOP buy-in, but this won't even get you an optics win on bipartisanship. It's just making the bill worse, because you can."
In an interview on CNN late Wednesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—the new chairman of the Senate Budget Committee—said Democrats should not weaken their coronavirus relief package in the hopes of attracting support from Republican senators, many of whom have been openly hostile to Biden's relief plan. Asked whether he favors restricting eligibility for the proposed $1,400 checks, Sanders said he does not.
"The truth is, you could be a family making a $125,000 with a bunch of kids, you are struggling today," said Sanders. "What we have got to do is understand this crisis impacts the middle class, it impacts the working class, it impacts lower-income people. We are in this together."