Trump imperils bipartisan stimulus deal with last minute demand for bigger checks

President Donald Trump’s surprise attack Tuesday on Congress’s historic coronavirus relief package left aid for millions of Americans hanging in the balance as the pandemic continues to batter the nation.

The famously unpredictable president slammed the $2.3 trillion bill as a “disgrace” less than 24 hours after Congress approved the legislation with overwhelmingly bipartisan votes. Trump demanded larger stimulus payments for individuals and called for eliminating “wasteful and unnecessary items,” but he didn’t say whether he would veto it.

Trump’s last-minute demands nonetheless sent shockwaves through Washington. In addition to $900 billion in pandemic-related measures, the package includes $1.4 trillion to fund government operations through next September. If the president doesn’t sign the legislation by Dec. 28, government funding would lapse after midnight that day, triggering a partial shutdown.

The angst might run deepest among the president’s fellow Republicans, who preferred a smaller pandemic relief package closer to $500 billion. They agreed to a $900 billion effort in the end, pressured by the political costs of holding up the relief package just weeks before a crucial runoff election for Georgia’s two Senate seats, which will determine control of that chamber.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quickly seized on Trump’s call for $2,000 in individual stimulus payments — well above the $600 included in the relief bill — and said the House would try to pass this additional measure during a pro forma session on Thursday, a move that could be blocked by a single member of Congress.

Republicans repeatedly refused to say what amount the President wanted for direct checks. At last, the President has agreed to $2,000 — Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week by unanimous consent. Let’s do it!— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) December 23, 2020

That bill would be a standalone measure to strike all references of $600 in the current legislation, to be replaced with $2,000, according to two people familiar with the plan. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he was said he was on board and challenged Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to agree.

Increasing the payment amounts to $2,000 would increase the cost of this provision to more than $500 billion, a significant increase from the more than $160 billion the Joint Committee on Taxation projects the current $600 payments to most Americans will cost.

Soaring Virus Cases

While many Senate Republicans are likely to balk at such a request, Missouri Republican Josh Hawley had joined with progressives to call for direct payments of at least $1,200. His proposal was blocked in the Senate last week by Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican.

The Covid-19 relief deal took more than six months to form and was only sealed after a frantic weekend of negotiations between congressional leaders staring down the end of this Congress. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of Trump’s top allies, urged him sign the existing bill to get relief to struggling businesses and families.

Virus cases continue to soar in the U.S. — more than 18 million people have been infected and more than 322,000 have died — and job growth has slowed, which increased the sense of urgency on Capitol Hill.

If Trump vetoes or declines to sign the measure, it would suspend benefits from the previous Covid relief bill that expire at the end of the month, including a moratorium on evictions and extended unemployment insurance for those who lost their jobs during the pandemic — all of which were addressed in the giant package approved Monday night.

It would also mean stimulus checks would not go out in the days after Christmas, as Trump’s own aides had promised, businesses would not receive access to additional loans, and no new funding for vaccine distribution, schools and airlines would be approved.

“I am asking Congress to amend this bill,” Trump said in a video announcement posted to Twitter. “Send me a suitable bill or else the next administration will have to deliver a Covid relief package. And maybe that administration will be me, and we will get it done.”

Critical Relief

Trump’s decision to publicly criticize the legislation came as a surprise, as his advisers had not suggested he was unhappy with the bill and indicated that he would sign it. Earlier Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had lauded the package, tweeting that it would provide “critical economic relief for American workers, families and businesses.”

Trump said in the video that the stimulus bill had “taken forever” to come together and blamed Democrats of having “cruelly blocked” aid to improve their chances of winning the 2020 election.

Yet for months, the president took a mostly hands-off approach to negotiations with Congress. He declined to engage directly with Pelosi, and he did not convene bipartisan meetings at the White House to reach an agreement. Trump has instead focused on his ill-fated effort to overturn his loss to President-elect Joe Biden over baseless allegations that widespread voter fraud tainted the Nov. 3 election results.

Still, Trump had indicated privately that he was unhappy with some of the provisions. He had been working on a statement calling for $2,000 stimulus checks, but White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows raised objections to releasing it over concerns it could torpedo the fragile talks, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Trump released the video at a time when a number of his senior aides, including Meadows, were out of town for the holidays.

Trump’s about-face on the stimulus comes as he has vented anger at Senate Republicans for refusing to vocally support his extraordinary bid to undo Biden’s victory. On Tuesday night, the president lashed out at Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in that chamber. Thune said Monday that any attempt by a handful of House conservatives to challenge the Electoral College’s results proclaiming Joe Biden the next president is “going down like a shot dog.”

“RINO John Thune, ‘Mitch’s boy’, should just let it play out,” Trump said Tuesday, using an abbreviation for Republicans-in-name-only, and referring to McConnell. “South Dakota doesn’t like weakness. He will be primaried in 2022, political career over!!!”

In criticizing the virus relief package, Trump appeared to be bending toward the right flank of his party that has been critical of the package and also supportive of his efforts to undermine the election. His public criticism came one day after a White House meeting with a cadre of conservative House members. Another one of his loyal GOP supporters, Representative Jim Banks of Indiana, cheered on the move, comparing it to the president’s 2018 vow never to sign another massive spending bill.

When @realDonaldTrump said “I will never sign another bill like this again” he meant it. #coronabus #PromisesKept— Jim Banks (@RepJimBanks) December 23, 2020

Trump’s social media chief, Dan Scavino, foreshadowed Trump’s move by assailing the stimulus package in a Tuesday morning Facebook post. “The COVID Relief Bill/Package is a TOTAL DISGRACE, INSULT, and EMBARRASSMENT!!” Scavino wrote.

‘Do Better’

Opposing the bill, however, creates a difficult situation for Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler seeking re-election in Georgia’s Jan. 5 runoff races. Both touted their votes for virus relief package in campaigns against their Democratic opponents, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

Ossoff, who called the $600 checks a “joke,” went after Perdue following Trump’s statement.

“Even @realdonaldtrump says $600 is a joke. @Perduesenate, do better,” he tweeted.

Trump’s comments are just the latest conflicting signals about his priorities for pandemic relief, showing how his chaotic approach has complicated the negotiations. In October, he pulled his team from talks with Democrats, and then demanded a bigger bill than Pelosi herself had favored.

Senior Senate GOP members counted keeping the relief effort below $1 trillion as a win, compared to the $2 trillion and more sought by Democrats.

–With assistance from Saleha Mohsin, Josh Wingrove, Justin Sink, Steven T. Dennis and Billy House.

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