US COVID aid at risk as legislators block Trump changes

Republicans block Democrat efforts to increase direct stimulus payments to Americans from $600 to $2,000 per person.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the US Congress, called the bill ‘a first step’ towards giving incoming President-elect Joe Biden the resources needed to 'crush the virus' [Ken Cedeno/Reuters]

Republicans and Democrats in the US House of Representatives have blocked attempts to alter a $2.3 trillion coronavirus aid and government spending package, leaving its status in doubt after President Donald Trump demanded extensive changes to the legislation.

After months of political wrangling, the US Congress on Monday overwhelmingly approved an $892bn emergency coronavirus aid bill that contains a one-time, $600 payment to individuals to help them cope with a US economy hobbled by the pandemic.

The aid was attached to $1.4 trillion in funding to keep the federal government operating through this fiscal year, which ends on September 30, 2021.

But defying expectations, Trump on Tuesday hinted he might veto the gigantic legislation if the direct payments were not increased to $2,000 per person and if a slew of unrelated government spending projects, including foreign aid, were not jettisoned. Trump did not explicitly say he would veto the bill in its current form.

Democrats on Thursday sought to increase the payments to Americans to the $2,000 per person requested by Trump, but the president’s fellow Republicans, who oppose the higher amount, blocked the effort.

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump departed Washington for Florida on Wednesday [Evan Vucci/AP Photo]

Republicans then moved to change the amount of foreign aid included in the package, seeking to address a separate Trump complaint. Democrats blocked that request. The House then adjourned for the day.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the chamber will hold a recorded vote on the stimulus-check increase on Monday.

The flurry of activity on the House floor did nothing to break a standoff that threatens desperately needed assistance for millions of Americans and raises the prospect of a partial government shutdown at a time when officials are trying to distribute two coronavirus vaccines.

The path forward, including efforts to avert a shutdown or perhaps even pass a last-ditch extension of soon-to-expire jobless checks, remained unclear. Any shutdown would probably be brief, but nothing is certain.

“We’re not gonna let the government shut down, nor are we going to let the American people down,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the Number two House Democrat. “There are continuing discussions going on between the speaker, and the secretary of the Treasury and the administration.”

Congress could keep operations running by passing a fourth stopgap funding bill, which would not include coronavirus aid, before midnight on Monday. To successfully do that, legislators would need Trump’s cooperation at a time when he is still consumed by his November loss to Democrat Joe Biden, who is set to take office on January 20.

Trump was in Florida, where he was due to play golf on Thursday. The White House did not immediately comment. Embittered by his defeat to Biden, Trump is pressing Congress to dramatically alter the package, which passed by wide, bipartisan margins on Monday.

The 5,500-page bill took months to negotiate and was supported by Trump’s administration.

With the status quo unchanged, it was unclear whether Trump would sign the package into law or hold out for further action.

Without his signature, unemployment benefits for those thrown out of work by the pandemic are due to expire as soon as Saturday, and the US government would be forced into a partial shutdown starting Tuesday.

The House is due to return on Monday to attempt to override Trump’s veto of an unrelated defence-policy bill which, like the coronavirus package, passed Congress by wide, bipartisan margins.

Source: News Agencies