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Second stimulus check: where does Biden stand on $1,200 payment?

Congress has been urged to pass a coronavirus stimulus bill, but a deal before US President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in appears to be unlikely.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 10, 2020 US President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware. - After Donald Trump in his first week as president spoke to Australia's prime minister, leaks of  the call left

Talks aimed at agreeing a new coronavirus relief package in the United States - and, with it, potentially a second stimulus check - failed to yield a deal before this month's election - and although Congress has been urged to get a package through before President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January, the prospects of that happening appear to be slim.

So what about after Biden’s inauguration? The former vice-president is in favor of a major relief bill that would include a second check, but Democrats’ hopes of pushing through multi-trillion-dollar legislation after the 77-year-old is sworn in look like hinging on the outcome of two Senate run-offs in Georgia early next year.

Here’s how things stand in the final months of the Trump administration, and what we can expect after Biden assumes the presidency:

Americans get $1,200 stimulus check in March’s CARES Act

As part of the CARES Act, a $2.2tn covid-19 stimulus bill passed in March, qualifying Americans were given checks of up to $1,200 to help them cope with the financial effects of the pandemic. According to research by the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, CARES measures such as direct payments and enhanced unemployment benefits curbed the poverty rate in the US by around 4%.

Pelosi, Mnuchin fail to agree on new stimulus package

In-months long talks over a new stimulus bill, Democratic congressional leaders and representatives of the Republican White House appear to have been in agreement on the need for another direct payment of up to $1,200 as part of a bipartisan package. However, they were not able to find enough middle ground on the overall size and scope of a bill - albeit they got within sight of each other.

While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) dropped the $3.4tn overall spend proposed in the Democrats’ unsuccessfully-tabled HEROES Act to $2.2tn, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin raised the White House’s offer from the $1tn in the HEALS Act - a bill proposed by Republican senators in July - only as far as $1.9tn.

Speaking on Friday, Pelosi said: “Our focus in the Congress now, in this lame duck [period before the end of President Donald Trump’s term], continues to be on covid relief. This is a red alert, all hands on deck.” She continued: "I urge Republicans to acknowledge the crisis and come to the table to work on covid relief."

Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell agrees that major relief is an urgent must amid world-record daily surges in coronavirus cases in the US. "The main risk we see to [economic recovery] is clearly the further spread of disease here in the United States," Powell said on Thursday. "We've got new cases at a record level, we've seen a number of states begin to reimpose limited activity restrictions, and people may lose confidence that it is safe to go out."

McConnell targeting 'skinny' bill worth around $500bn

President Trump on Saturday called for a “big and focused” package, but agreement before Biden’s inauguration does not appear likely, not least because on the Republican side, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) is now taking the lead on stimulus efforts - and has indicated his unwillingness to countenance a comprehensive relief bill.

Instead, McConnell is seeking a 'targeted' bill such as the two that Senate Republicans have already had blocked in the upper chamber. “We need to think about, if we’re going to come up with a bipartisan package here, about what size is appropriate,” he said on Tuesday. “I don’t think the current situation demands a multi-trillion-dollar package. So I think it should be highly targeted, very similar to what I put on the floor both in October and September.”

Neither of these bills - which were only worth around $500bn - included provision for a direct payment. Such a package "isn't anything that we should even be looking at", Pelosi replied this week.

What is Joe Biden’s stance on stimulus bill and stimulus checks?

"One of the urgent things that need to be done is people need relief right now - right now: small businesses, people who are about to be evicted from their homes because they can't pay their mortgage, unemployment insurance," Biden said on Tuesday.

As part of the Biden Emergency Action Plan to Save the Economy that he released before the election, the president-elect supports another round of stimulus checks.

"Congress approved direct cash relief - $1,200 per person to help working families through this crisis," the Emergency Action Plan says. "But it’s a one-off […]. Joe Biden would: Provide for additional checks to families should conditions require."

However, Biden's proposal does not specify exactly how much such a round of payments would be, or what the eligibility conditions would be.

What are the chances of a major stimulus bill after Biden takes office?

Right now, Republicans’ 53-47 majority in the Senate has meant that Democrat attempts to pass a multi-trillion-dollar follow-up to the CARES Act have failed, with both the HEROES Act and the $2.2tn HEROES Act 2.0 coming up against a brick wall of GOP senators reluctant to countenance a large outlay. That could be about to change, though.

That's because Democrats will have control of both chambers of Congress if they win two run-off Senate votes in Georgia on 5 January. Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock face Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively, in election re-runs after none of the contenders managed to win over 50% of the vote in the original ballots on 3 November.

Were both Ossoff and Warnock to win their Senate races, Republicans’ majority in the upper house would be wiped out, leaving the two sides tied at 50 seats each. As the vice-president - which is to be Democrat Kamala Harris - is given a tie-breaking Senate vote in such a circumstance, the Dems would hold the advantage.

That said, such a slim majority would leave Democrats no room for maneuver if any of their more moderate members of the Senate were to go against the party line in a vote on a stimulus package.

Furthermore, most legislation can only be put to a vote in the Senate after passing a procedural ballot that requires 60 votes rather than a simple majority. However, it is thought the Democrats could circumvent this stumbling block by resorting to what is called the ‘reconciliation process’, which allows legislation on tax and spending to advance with 51 votes.

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