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Action Shifts To Senate For Passage Of $2,000 COVID-19 Relief Payments

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Sometime tonight, the Senate may vote to increase COVID relief checks. Congress already approved COVID relief. But at the last moment, President Trump demanded larger checks, $2000 checks. Democrats in the House have already said fine. So now the pressure is on Senate Republicans who have hit upon a particular approach, which NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell will explain. Kelsey, good morning.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are Senate Republicans doing?

SNELL: So there is an attempt to bring the Senate in this evening and call every senator to the floor to vote on this combination of a defense bill and then, eventually, these checks, which will be added to these liability protections for - lifting liability protections for social media companies. Now, that might sound really confusing...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

SNELL: ...Because it kind of is (laughter). What is happening here is that President Trump called on Congress to pass a number of reforms to a coronavirus bill that already happened. And the way that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is approaching this is to combine Section 230, which is a decades-old law that has to do with liability for social media companies about what's posted on their platforms, with these $2,000 checks. And he's saying that President Trump wanted them combined. So he is going to make sure that he combines them on the floor. Democrats say that's just toxic.

INSKEEP: Toxic, meaning that this would cause the entire bill to fail?

SNELL: Right. So the way that they are getting to enough votes that they say to pass these stimulus checks is that a lot of Democrats, almost every single Democrat, would have to vote for it. But Democrats do not support making the changes to the liability protections for social media. So they say by combining these two things, Republicans are essentially dooming this bill because there won't be enough people to vote for it.

INSKEEP: Can I just note we're days away from a vital Senate runoff election - two runoffs in Georgia that will decide control of the Senate. Are Republicans in a difficult position because some of them want to vote yes on this, but some of them want the relief checks to fail because they're too expensive?

SNELL: Yeah. Absolutely. President Trump put his Republican allies in a terrible bind over these checks. You know, as you said, some Republicans are in favor of the increased checks. Marco Rubio, Florida, backs them. And Susan Collins of Maine says she's open to it. But most importantly, the two Republican senators from Georgia, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, say that, you know, they want to vote for it. And their races, which are happening in Georgia, the runoff races next week, would determine the balance of power in the Senate.

And they've been contorting their message around these checks to try to, you know, meet the president's demands. McConnell and a lot of Republicans oppose it because it would cost over $460 billion to add it in. In some ways, McConnell could be giving himself an out. Loeffler and Perdue get to say they supported the checks. And McConnell gets to say he tried and blame the Democrats if the bill fails.

INSKEEP: The way Congress sometimes works.

SNELL: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Kelsey, before I let you go, I have to ask about a Louisiana congressman-elect who has died of COVID-19.

SNELL: Yeah. Luke Letlow was 41 years old. And was set to be sworn into Congress on Sunday. His spokesman confirmed his death in a statement saying Letlow died of complications from COVID-19 after being admitted to the ICU on December 22. You know, he was the father of two young children and had just won a runoff election for that seat earlier this month. He favored lifting restrictions for COVID-19 in his home state of Louisiana. And he's the first elected member to die from the disease caused by the coronavirus, though nearly 50 sitting members have reported testing positive.

INSKEEP: Kelsey, thanks for your coverage all year, really appreciate it.

SNELL: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: That's NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.