coronavirus stimulus

How a Second Stimulus Check Could Be Approved After the Election

Of the current players in the stimulus talks, Speaker Pelosi is the least likely to be affected by the election results. Photo: Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

We should know within the next couple of days whether Nancy Pelosi and Steven Mnuchin can reach an agreement on another package of COVID-19 relief and stimulus legislation before Election Day. Pelosi seems to be getting close to deciding it’s just not happening. But even if they do reach agreement, the legislative timetable for fully drafting and enacting a stimulus bill before November 3 is daunting, to put it mildly. And that’s true whether or not you buy the ubiquitous Beltway media assumption (I don’t) that Mitch McConnell has stood up on his hind legs and informed the White House he will kill a deal if it is reached. Even Pelosi is now conceding it may be too late to enact stimulus legislation before the election.

So it’s appropriate to examine some postelection scenarios to see when and whether Americans looking for that second $1,200 check, supplemental unemployment insurance, or rental assistance might expect some help from their government.

If It’s Before Election Day

It’s possible Pelosi and Mnuchin could seal and announce a deal before November 3 that would have to be enacted by at least one congressional chamber and signed by the president later. It might help it to “stick” if the House approved it first. And it’s possible that Donald Trump, whether he wins or loses the election, (a) would feel bound to implement the deal and (b) could figure out a way to get it through the Senate, assuming McConnell doesn’t renege on his promise to give it a vote whether or not a majority of Republicans support it.

That’s a lot of contingencies, so making a preelection deal binding would require a lot of public blood oaths from Pelosi, Mnuchin, and Trump. It’s generally hard to imagine that the election results wouldn’t affect the willingness of someone to move forward on a deal that was agreed upon when the political world was a very different place full of hope and fear. Indeed, the expectation that a defeated Trump would lose interest in doing much of anything other than preparing himself for postpresidential criminal prosecutions probably explains Pelosi’s determination to keep trying for a preelection deal that is at least half implemented before November 3.

If Democrats Sweep

If it’s clear on or shortly after Election Night that Joe Biden will be the 46th president and that Democrats will control the Senate as well as the House, the incentives to reach a deal during a lame-duck session before the new power configuration is implemented would drop quickly. It’s possible that, should COVID-19 cases continue to shoot up and the economy again falter, there could be some bipartisan interest in a short-term relief/stimulus bill, perhaps in conjunction with the appropriations measures necessary to keep the federal government open past December 11, when the stopgap spending bill Trump signed expires.

That necessary bit of cleanup work also guarantees there will be a lame-duck session, which is already pretty certain since McConnell will want to get a few more Trump-appointed judges confirmed before giving up his gavel.

If Trump Wins

If Trump manages to win, we’ll assume his party will hang on to control of the Senate as well. At that point, the administration’s power over and prestige among fellow Republicans would be immense, and it’s likely Trump would be able to get what he wants from a relieved McConnell. But the whole stimulus discussion might well be subsumed within the broader topic of a second-term agenda for Trump that he can announce by Inauguration Day, assuming he takes the time to do anything other than bellow in triumph and threaten his vanquished enemies.

Depending on how the economy is doing at that point, a renewed Trump administration might take a different negotiating tack, focusing even more than it has previously on tax goodies for the president’s corporate friends and perhaps unveiling the long-awaited infrastructure package. Meanwhile, Pelosi (who would herself be a lame-duck Speaker thanks to a 2018 agreement she reached with Democratic critics to step down by 2022) would still be in a position to veto any stimulus package. There’s no particular reason to believe she will do anything other than continue to drive a hard bargain, with any deal she accepts focusing on getting cash out the door to vulnerable constituencies.

If Democrats Sweep and Wait

If Democrats win the White House and Congress but nothing happens until they assume power early next year, COVID-19 stimulus plans would likely become a relatively small cog in the larger machine of an administration agenda. As we can already envision, triumphant Democrats will immediately begin bargaining and angling for leverage throughout the transition. If the economy remains shaky, though, you could see a bigger, more progressive stimulus package (something more like the $3 trillion–plus HEROES Act the House passed in May than the later compromise offers), a sort of first installment on a Biden legislative agenda that the entire party can support.

Even in the minority, McConnell will retain some significant leverage unless and until Democrats abolish the legislative filibuster. Democrats could in theory get around that problem by employing the same budget-reconciliation process that Republicans used to enact their 2017 tax legislation (and that they used unsuccessfully in the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare), which generates legislation that cannot be filibustered. Indeed, that’s what Democrats did to complete the enactment of Obamacare in the first place. From McConnell and congressional Republicans generally, you would almost certainly see a return to the obstructionist “fiscal hawk” posture they displayed throughout the Obama administration.

If Biden Wins and the GOP Keeps the Senate

In this scenario, McConnell would be a lot more than an obstructionist: Both filibuster reform and the deployment of budget reconciliation to get a stimulus package, or any other Biden-administration legislation, through the Senate would be off the table. Assuming there are any Republicans amenable to compromise left in Mitch’s conference (a likely suspect is Lisa Murkowski, who is up for reelection in 2022 and has been half excommunicated from the GOP by Trump), Democrats would try to pick them off, though again, it’s hard to see how they could get to the 60 votes they’d need if the filibuster is still available and reconciliation isn’t.

If the economy is really suffering, perhaps McConnell could be convinced not to block a stimulus package similar to the one Pelosi and Mnuchin are close to agreeing upon right now. But as long as Rand Paul and Ron Johnson and Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton and others who may see the next Republican president in the mirror are out there demagoguing against any more “socialistic” spending, it could be a tougher climb to 60 votes than it is today, when Trump is lobbying for a deal and some Republican senators are facing electoral defeat.

If There’s Postelection Chaos

The last scenario I will mention is one that obviously has dire implications beyond the pall it would cast on stimulus legislation: a contested 2020 election that roils Washington and many states and makes future control of the White House and possibly the Senate impossible to determine for weeks, right up to the January 20 date for inaugurating the president.

Details aside, anything that keeps control of the federal government in doubt for an extended period of time would have a baleful effect on financial markets and likely the economy in general, while making any sort of bipartisan negotiations for relief and stimulus measures virtually impossible. Any deal would have to await definitive identification of the deal-makers.

There’s a mini-version of this bad situation, in which control of the Senate won’t be determined until after one or even two January 4 general-election runoffs in Georgia to elect the state’s senators. McConnell and Chuck Schumer are likely to have their thoughts focused on Georgia, rather than on any stimulus dealmaking, if that’s how it all goes down.

All in all, it may be best if Pelosi and Mnuchin reach a deal in the hours just ahead and then get it enacted before November 3. Perhaps that would be very difficult, but there’s really no easy path ahead for those wanting federal assistance right now.

How a Second Stimulus Check Could Happen After the Election