By Terrance Turner
As a government shutdown looms, President Donald Trump has agreed to sign a $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill. Axios reports (and CNN confirms) that the president will sign the current bill, which provides $600 checks for most Americans. The bill also includes $300 per week in enhanced unemployment insurance for 11 weeks. Further additions include $25 billion in rental assistance and an extension of the eviction moratorium.
Also included are $319 billion for small businesses, including $284 billion for loans given through the Paycheck Protection Program and $15 billion for live venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions. Other features are $13 billion in increased SNAP and child nutrition benefits, $82 billion in education, and billions for vaccine distribution and COVID-19 testing.
The bill is attached to a $1.4 trillion omnibus bill, which provides funding to keep the government open. That makes it a legislative behemoth: a $2.3 trillion, 5,593-page bill with a host of objectives and goals. After eight months of deadlock and negotiation, the bill was finally agreed upon last week. It passed with overwhelming (and rare) bipartisan support.
But on Tuesday, the president blindsided lawmakers by attacking the bill, calling it “a disgrace”. In a video posted online, Trump complained that the bill had alnost nothig to do with COVID-19. “Congress found plenty of money for foreign countries, lobbyists and special interests while sending the bare minimum to the American people,” he said.
“I am asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000,” he added. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi agreed. “At last, the President has agreed to $2,000 — Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week,” she wrote on Twitter. “Let’s do it!”
The Democrats did indeed bring a bill with $2000 payments to the congressional floor, but House Republicans rejected it. Instead of working with Congress on a new bill, the president departed the White House with First lady Melania Trump to begin his end-of-year vacation at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. He has spent much of the weekend golfing in West Palm Beach. Lawmakers delivered the legislation to him in Florida, per the Times.
Meanwhile, unemployment benefits expired at midnight, leaving millions in jeopardy of losing benefits. As the New York Times explained: “States cannot pay out benefits for weeks that begin before the bill is signed, meaning that if the president does not sign the bill by Saturday [Dec. 26], benefits will not restart until the first week of January. But they will still end in mid-March, effectively trimming the extension to 10 weeks from 11.”
As of Nov. 28, there were 14 million people receiving unemployment benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) programs, an increase of 958,000 from the previous week, Axios’ Dion Rabouin reports. The Associated Press says that about 9.5 million people rely on the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program alone (including the author). That program made unemployment insurance available to freelancers, gig workers and others who are normally not eligible. After receiving their last checks, those recipients will not be able to file for more aid after Saturday.
- 1.4 million Americans filed unemployment claims for the first time earlier this month, with 935,000 filing for traditional unemployment benefits and 455,000 filing claims for the PUA program.
- The current bill would extend the period that unemployment can be collected until March, per the New York Times.
This sudden decision came as a shutdown loomed. Per the AP, the government was scheduled to shut down at 12:01 am Tuesday when funding ran out. That placed pressure on everyone, Trump included. As the weekend progressed, lawmakers — both Democratic and Republican — urged the president to sign the current bill now and push for the $2,000 payments later. “I think the best thing to do is sign this and then make the case for subsequent legislation,” said Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. He warned that the president’s legacy would be adversely affected.
“I understand he wants to be remembered for advocating for big checks,” Toomey said on Fox News Sunday. “But the danger is he’ll be remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behavior, if he allows this to expire.” (If Trump had merely sat on the bill, it would expire after 10 days, forcing lawmakers on Capitol Hill to start all over with new legislation.)
On ABC’s “This Week” this morning, Sen. Bernie Sanders criticized the president’s obstruction: “What the president is doing right now is unbelievably cruel,” said Sanders. “Many millions of people are losing their extended unemployment benefits. They’re going to be evicted from their apartments because the eviction moratorium is ending. We are looking at a way to get the vaccine distributed to tens of millions of people. There’s money in that bill.”
Sen. Sanders is correct in asserting that renters will face eviction if the bill is not signed. But there are other pressing problems affecting many out-of-work Americans — problems that will be exacerbated if no deal is reached:
- Nearly 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January, per WaPo — showing that people are running out of money for basic needs.
- The U.S. poverty rate jumped to 11.7% in November, up 2.4 percentage points since June — making this the biggest jump in a single year since the government began tracking poverty 60 years ago, the Washington Post reports.