US legislators press Trump on relief bill as jobless aid expires

Bernie Sanders blasts Trump’s decision not to sign COVID bill, as millions of Americans lose unemployment benefits.

President Donald Trump rides in a motorcade vehicle as he departs Trump International Golf Club [Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]

The US government headed towards a chaotic last few days of the year as President Donald Trump’s refusal to approve a $2.3 trillion financial package caused millions of jobless Americans to lose benefits and threatened to shut down federal agencies due to lack of funding.

Trump, who leaves office on January 20 after losing November’s election, came under pressure on Sunday from legislators on both sides to stop blocking the pandemic aid and government funding bill which was approved by Congress last week.

The Republican president has demanded that Congress change the bill to increase the size of stimulus checks for struggling Americans to $2,000 from $600, imperilling not only a massive package of economic and public-health assistance but the basic functions of government itself.

The package passed with wide margins in the House and Senate and with the understanding of members of both parties that Trump supported it. Now, the federal government will run out of money at 12:01am Tuesday (05:01 GMT) if Trump refuses to sign the bill in time while he spends the holidays in Florida.

A volunteer from Forgotten Harvest food bank unpackages goods during a mobile food pantry before Christmas, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Warren, Michigan [File: Emily Elconin/Reuters]

In the face of economic hardship and a continuing surge of the novel coronavirus, lawmakers urged Trump on Sunday to sign the legislation immediately, then have Congress follow up with more. Aside from unemployment benefits and relief payments to families, money for vaccine distribution, businesses, cash-starved public transit systems and more is on the line. Protections against evictions also hang in the balance.

“What the president is doing right now is unbelievably cruel,” Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, told ABC on Sunday. “So many people are hurting … It is really insane and this president has got to finally … do the right thing for the American people and stop worrying about his ego.”

Republican Senator Pat Toomey told Fox News that Trump should approve the bill now, then push for more money later.

“I understand the president would like to send bigger checks to everybody. I think what he ought to do is sign this bill and then make the case. Congress can pass another bill,” Toomey said.

“You don’t get everything you want, even if you are the president of the United States,” he said.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican who has criticised Trump’s pandemic response and his efforts to undo the election results. “I just gave up guessing what he might do next,” he said.

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 headed for the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach.

He has also complained that the bill gives too much money to special interests, cultural projects and foreign aid.

Volunteers pack boxes of food outside Second Harvest Food Bank  in Irvine, California [File: Ashley Landis/AP Photo]

Benefit payments

Americans are living through a bitter holiday season amid a pandemic that has killed more than 330,000 people in the United States, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally, with a daily death toll now repeatedly more than 3,000 people, the highest since the pandemic began.

According to COVID Tracking Project data, the US has recorded an average of 185,903 new daily infections over the past seven days, while the number of people in hospital with the disease reached 117,344 on Saturday. The total number of confirmed infections since the outbreak began surpassed 19 million on Sunday, according to Johns Hopkins, by far the highest number in the world.

The relief package also extends a moratorium on evictions that expires on December 31, refreshes support for small business payrolls, provides funding to help schools reopen and aid for the transport industry and vaccine distribution.

Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said too much is at stake for Trump to “play this old switcheroo game”.

“I don’t get the point,” he told CNN. “I don’t understand what’s being done; why, unless it’s just to create chaos and show power and be upset because you lost the election.”

The US Congress, which normally is adjourned the last week of December, is preparing to return to work.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the US Congress, plans to vote on Monday on legislation providing one-time $2,000 checks to people [File: Ken Cedeno/Reuters]

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives plans to vote on Monday on legislation providing one-time $2,000 checks to people, but Republican lawmakers are already concerned about the cost of the larger package.

Without enactment of the broad relief and funding bill, the US government runs out of money one minute after midnight December 28 (05:01 GMT on Tuesday). If the battle with Trump is not resolved by then, Congress must either pass a stopgap funding bill or federal agencies will not have money to fully operate beginning Tuesday.

That scenario could be avoided if both the House and Senate pass a funding bill that is separate from the pandemic legislation and the president signs it by midnight Monday.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies