US president’s demand for larger relief payments jeopardised assistance programmes and threatened a government shutdown
President Donald Trump on Sunday signed into law a $2.3 trillion pandemic aid and spending package, restoring unemployment benefits to millions of Americans and averting a federal government shutdown in a crisis of his own making.
Mr Trump, who leaves office on January 20 after losing November’s election to president-elect Joe Biden, backed down from his earlier threat to block the bill after he came under intense pressure from lawmakers on both sides. The bill was approved by Congress last week.
The Republican president had demanded that Congress change the bill to increase the size of stimulus cheques for struggling Americans to $2,000 from $600 and also cut some other spending. He golfed on Sunday and remained out of public view as the potential government crisis loomed.
It was not immediately clear why Mr Trump, who has refused to concede defeat to Mr Biden, changed his mind on the stimulus package. His resistance had threatened to inject further chaos into the final stretch of his presidency.
White House officials have been tight-lipped about Mr Trump’s thinking but a source familiar with the situation said some advisers had urged him to relent because they did not see the point of refusing.
Democrats are on board with the $2,000 payments but many Republicans have opposed it in the past. Many economists agree the financial aid in the bill should be higher to get the economy moving again but say immediate support for Americans hit by coronavirus lockdowns is still urgently needed.
Unemployment benefits being paid out to about 14 million people through pandemic programmes lapsed on Saturday, but will be restarted now that Mr Trump has signed the bill.
The package includes $1.4 trillion in spending to fund government agencies. If Mr Trump had not signed the legislation, a partial government shutdown would have begun on Tuesday that would have put millions of government workers’ incomes at risk.
Mr Trump’s abrupt move to sign the bill came after most Republican lawmakers refused to back his call for changes to legislation they had already voted on.
Hours earlier, Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania told Fox News that Mr Trump wants “to be remembered for advocating for big cheques, but the danger is he’ll be remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behaviour if he allows this to expire”.
Republican officials were relieved that Mr Trump had backed away from his veiled veto threat, saying it should help Republican candidates David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in January 5 runoff elections that will determine control of the US Senate.
Mr Trump sought to put the best face on his climbdown, saying he was signing the bill with “a strong message that makes clear to Congress that wasteful items need to be removed”.
He noted that the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives planned to vote on Monday to increase coronavirus relief cheques to individuals from $600 to $2,000, and said the Senate “will start the process” to approve higher payments.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Republican, said “I thank the president for signing this relief into law” but made no mention of any plans for a Senate vote.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi welcomed Mr Trump’s signing as a “down payment on what is needed,” saying: “Now, the president must immediately call on Congressional Republicans to end their obstruction and to join him and Democrats in support of our stand-alone legislation to increase direct payment cheques to $2,000.”
After months of wrangling, Republicans and Democrats agreed to the package last weekend, with the support of the White House.
Mr Trump stunned Republicans and Democrats alike when he later said he was unhappy with the massive bill, which provides $892 billion in coronavirus financial relief.
Mr Trump spent the Christmas holiday at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. On Sunday morning, he seemed in no rush to try to resolve the standoff with Congress as he played a round of golf at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach.
He had also complained that the bill gives too much money to special interests, cultural projects and foreign aid.
In his signing statement, Mr Trump also sought to keep alive his campaign of baseless claims that the November election was rigged against him.
He said the House and Senate “have agreed to focus strongly on the very substantial voter fraud” and that the Senate will launch an investigation.
Neither Mr McConnell nor Ms Pelosi made mention of such an agreement. Democratic lawmakers have steadfastly rejected Mr Trump’s claims as have some Republicans. Mr McConnell angered Mr Trump by recognising Mr Biden as president-elect.
Americans are living through a bitter holiday season amid a pandemic that has killed nearly 330,000 people in the United States, with a daily death toll now repeatedly well over 3,000 people, the highest since the pandemic began.
The relief package also extends a moratorium on evictions that was due to expire on December 31, refreshes support for small business payrolls, provides funding to help schools reopen and aid for the transport industry and vaccine distribution.