A Bipartisan Stimulus Bill Lives

Democrats endorse a stimulus compromise and wait for McConnell to buy in, while a departing Republican issues a plea for harmony. It’s Thursday, and this is your politics tip sheet. Sign up here to get On Politics in your inbox every weekday.

Where things stand

Democratic leaders in Congress threw their support behind a $908 billion compromise bill proposed by a bipartisan group of moderate senators, turning up the pressure on Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, to bring a stimulus bill to the floor.

President-elect Joe Biden endorsed the bill as a necessary step, striking a half-a-loaf attitude during a virtual event with laid-off workers and a struggling small-business owner. He said the compromise bill “wouldn’t be the answer, but it would be immediate help for a lot of things, quickly.”

The proposal is significantly smaller than the $3 trillion bill passed by the House in May and would not include nearly as much funding for state and local governments. It also wouldn’t include another round of direct cash payments to Americans.

But McConnell has said he would oppose spending as much as this bill calls for; Republicans have proposed something about half its size.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, released a statement saying that they supported using the $908 billion framework “as the basis for immediate bipartisan, bicameral negotiations.” They also said that they had privately made their own offer to Republicans on Monday.

In valedictory remarks delivered yesterday on the Senate floor, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a retiring Republican, pleaded with his colleagues to recommit to a spirit of cooperation and open debate. Alexander, a close friend of McConnell’s, said that the chamber had erred and that it deserved the public frustrations that have been heaped upon it.

Alexander faulted senators on both sides of the aisle for “blocking each other’s amendments,” but he appeared to be directing some of his criticisms at the leadership of his own party, under whom the Senate’s legislative agenda has ground to a near standstill amid new levels of partisan gridlock.

“Lately, the Senate has been like joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being able to sing,” Alexander said. “It’s a real waste of talent.”

McConnell appeared to grow emotional as he gave his own statement on the floor, saying he had “leaned on Lamar’s wisdom for many years, but I think I’ve learned just as much on his optimism.”

Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona was sworn in yesterday, ahead of next year’s incoming class of senators because he won a special election for the seat vacated by John McCain’s death in 2018.

Former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Kelly’s wife, commemorated the occasion on Twitter by posting a picture of her own swearing-in ceremony in 2007. “You were by my side when I took my oath of office nearly 14 years ago,” Giffords wrote. “I’m so excited to be by yours today as you’re sworn in as our next Arizona Senator.”

Kelly’s arrival narrows the Republican majority in the chamber to 52-48, where it will remain unless Democrats can displace the Republican incumbents in two runoff elections in Georgia next month.

For those two Republican senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, the race has been complicated by an intraparty squabble among Republicans, with President Trump bashing the state’s leaders — despite their being conservative Republicans with a historical commitment to harsh voting laws — for running what he has called, without evidence, an illegitimate election process.

Some strategists worry that the tiff between state party leaders and Trump could tamp down Republican turnout in the runoffs. Adding to their concerns: Perdue was investigated this year by the Justice Department over possible insider trading at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, using knowledge gleaned from his work in the Senate.

The government elected this summer not to press charges, but the public spotlight now trained on Perdue’s prolific stock-trading history has complicated his re-election bid.

Here’s one thing Republicans and Democrats in the Senate were able to agree on yesterday: that Trump shouldn’t use a military-spending bill to attach an unrelated amendment targeting social media companies.

Trump had sought to attach an amendment to the annual military policy bill that would make it easier for Twitter, Facebook and other companies to be sued over content on their sites, and over their decisions about how to regulate that content.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 has been a sticking point for Trump and his allies, who say tech companies have taken advantage of the legislation’s protections while suppressing conservative views. On Tuesday, the president threatened on Twitter to veto the military legislation if it didn’t include a repeal of Section 230.

But Republican leaders said yesterday that they failed to see how the Section 230 repeal belonged in a military bill and that they weren’t willing to jeopardize the fate of what they considered an essential piece of legislation. “I don’t want it on this bill, because we can’t have a bill if that language is on it,” said Senator James Inhofe, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

As Trump ponders whom to pardon on his way out the door, our Washington correspondent Charlie Savage took a close look at what the president can and can’t do.

It’s not unprecedented for presidents to issue provisional pardons of people who haven’t yet been accused of a crime, Charlie writes, but it’s rare. The most prominent example was probably Gerald Ford’s blanket pardon of Richard Nixon after Nixon had resigned under threat of impeachment.

As Charlie points out, presidential pardons apply only to federal crimes. Pertinently, tax evasion and financial fraud are often prosecuted at the state level.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that once someone has been pardoned for a crime, that person can no longer plead the Fifth Amendment in relation to it. Lying or refusing to testify about it could lead to separate criminal charges.

Photo of the day

Diners at Janssen’s Market in Wilmington, Del., ate lunch in front of a cutout of Biden.

From Opinion: Was Cuomo’s order restricting religious gatherings unconstitutional?

Did Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s October executive order restricting the size of gatherings in New York — including gatherings in houses of worship — violate the Constitution? Last week, the Supreme Court decided that yes, it most likely did.

The court temporarily invalidated Cuomo’s executive order, pending a decision by a lower court. The Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote in his appreciation of Justice Neil Gorsuch’s concurrence that “the right to the free exercise of religion, even if subject to regulation, deserves greater deference than the right to attend your local cineplex,” and that Cuomo’s rules hadn’t been evenly applied.

In an Op-Ed article in October, Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia, argued that Cuomo would have a hard time trying to defend the unequal application of “essential” in allowing or disallowing certain gatherings, as he would “struggle to rationalize the unequal treatment of schools, restaurants and houses of worship.” Gatherings can be regulated, especially for the protection of human life, but to stand up before the court, “the rules must really be nondiscriminatory,” Laycock wrote.

In the majority opinion last week, the Supreme Court noted that under Cuomo’s most restrictive order, “a synagogue or church may not admit more than 10 persons,” but that “businesses categorized as ‘essential’ may admit as many people as they wish.”

The unsigned opinion added: “The list of ‘essential’ businesses includes things such as acupuncture facilities, campgrounds, garages, as well as many whose services are not limited to those that can be regarded as essential, such as all plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics and all transportation facilities.”

Michael McConnell and Max Raskin, two law professors, wrote in an Op-Ed article this week, “When public health measures intrude on civil liberties — not just religious exercise, but other constitutional rights — judges will insist that the measures be nonarbitrary, nondiscriminatory and no more restrictive than the facts and evidence demand.” In McConnell and Raskin’s view, the arbitrariness of Cuomo’s rules is bound to be a problem when the lower court takes up this case.

— Adam Rubenstein

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