Trump Signs Pandemic Relief Bill After Unemployment Aid Lapses
"After calling the measure a “disgrace,” President Trump unexpectedly signed the bill, extending expanded unemployment benefits and an eviction moratorium, and keeping the government open.
WASHINGTON — President Trump on Sunday abruptly signed a measure providing $900 billion in pandemic aid and funding the government through September, ending last-minute turmoil he himself had created over legislation that will offer an economic lifeline to millions of Americans and avert a government shutdown.
The legislative package will provide billions of dollars for the distribution of vaccines, funds for schools, small businesses, hospitals and American families, and money needed to keep the government open for the remainder of the fiscal year. The enactment came less than 48 hours before the government would have shut down and just days before an eviction moratorium and other critical pandemic relief provisions were set to expire.
But it also came after two critical unemployment programs lapsed, guaranteeing a delay in benefits for millions of unemployed Americans.
The crisis was one of Mr. Trump’s own making, after he blindsided lawmakers and White House officials with a videotaped implicit threat on Tuesday to veto the package, which his top deputies had helped negotiate and which had cleared both chambers of Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support nearly a week ago. The 5,593-page legislation was flown to Florida, where the president is spending the winter holidays, on Thursday and had been waiting for Mr. Trump’s signature since.
Having been largely on the sidelines during monthslong negotiations, the president suddenly threatened to withhold his signature with an unexpected demand to more than triple the $600 direct payments to $2,000 and with criticism over some government funding provisions that provided foreign aid. But Republicans had insisted on curtailing the size of the direct payments to accommodate conservative concerns about the size of the package, and the provisions Mr. Trump singled out were in line with the president’s budget request this year.
Even as he acquiesced to bipartisan pleas to sign the legislation, the president issued a series of demands for congressional action, though lawmakers showed little immediate eagerness to embrace them with just six days left in the session.
“I will sign the omnibus and Covid package with a strong message that makes clear to Congress that wasteful items need to be removed,” Mr. Trump said in a statement late Sunday, saying he would send a formal request asking for some of the funds to be removed. But the 25-day time frame for considering such a request will collide with the inauguration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Jan. 20, and House Democrats said they do not plan to vote on the request.
“The House Appropriations Committee has jurisdiction over rescissions, and our Democratic majority will reject any rescissions submitted by President Trump,” said Representative Nita Lowey of New York, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. “By turning the page on this request, we will allow the Biden-Harris administration to begin to build back better.”
Mr. Trump claimed in his statement that the Senate would “start the process for a vote” on legislation that would increase direct payments and address a provision that would repeal a legal shield for social media companies that he has tried to force into a sweeping military policy bill. The president, who has been consumed with false claims of voter fraud since his election loss, also claimed that Congress would take up the issue, a certain nonstarter for Democrats, who control the House.
House Democrats plan on Monday to vote on legislation that would provide for $2,000 direct payments, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying Mr. Trump should “immediately call on congressional Republicans to end their obstruction” and support the measure. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, said he would move to pass the bill in the Senate, but such a maneuver would require Republican support.
But during the negotiations, Senate Republicans have resisted increasing the payments, citing concerns about the deficit. In a statement applauding the president’s signature, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, made no mention of the $2,000 payments or any of the president’s assertions about the next steps for the chamber he controls.
“I applaud President Trump’s decision to get hundreds of billions of dollars of crucial Covid-19 relief out the door and into the hands of American families as quickly as possible,” Mr. McConnell said, without any mention of the delay Mr. Trump caused.
While the legislation provides for expanded and extended unemployment benefits, Mr. Trump’s delay in signing allowed two critical programs to lapse this weekend and guarantees a delay in benefits for millions of Americans who had relied on the income. The legislation provides for a weekly $300 federal benefit — about half the original benefit established in the March stimulus law — for 11 weeks, and extends the two programs.
With state unemployment agencies waiting for federal guidance on how to put the new legislation in place, it is unclear how quickly those programs could resume and whether the benefits would be retroactive to accommodate the delay. Because unemployment benefits are processed weekly and the legislation was not signed before the beginning of the week, it is likely that workers in most states will lose a week of benefits under the expanded program, as well as a week with the $300 supplemental benefit.
“They might get it at the back end, but there are bills tomorrow,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit workers’ rights group. “It’s just so frustrating that he couldn’t have figured this out yesterday. One day of delay is catastrophe for millions.”
A Democratic aide on Sunday said most states would need guidance from the Labor Department to see if they could pay benefits for the week of Dec. 27.
The delay also jeopardized the time frame for distributing the $600 direct payments to most American adults, which Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, had initially promised could be distributed as early as this week.
“For families wondering how they will pay January rent or buy groceries, a weekslong delay could have serious consequences,” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement Sunday evening. “While it’s a huge relief that the bill is being signed, Donald Trump’s tantrum has created unnecessary hardship and stress for millions of families.”
Mr. Trump’s signing of the measure came as welcome relief for desperate Americans who had been left on edge as their unemployment benefits lapsed.
Melissa Martinez, 52, of Westminster, Colo., said she had applied for more than 50 jobs since being laid off as an operations manager for a transportation company in April. Like millions of others, her unemployment benefits expired the day after Christmas.
“I’ll be able to pay my bills, I’m not going to have to sacrifice my credit, I’m not going to have to worry about where we’re going to live,” she said. “It’s a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. A huge weight.”
Though she is grateful for the aid, Ms. Martinez wishes that Mr. Trump would have signed the bill sooner.
“It is a huge deal because we needed it and we were desperate for it,” she said. “But we shouldn’t have been desperate for a $600 check after nine months. This is something that should have been done months ago.”
Jennifer Bryant and her family needed the aid in the stimulus bill to keep their home in Flowery Branch, Ga.
“It’s how we’re going to have a place to live right now,” she said. “It’s how we’re going to feed our kids. It’s how we’re going to survive.”
She and her fiancé, who have five children between them, were collecting unemployment benefits until they expired earlier this month. Besides the extension of those benefits, the relief package will keep in place a moratorium on evictions that will otherwise expire on Dec. 31.
“It restored my hope again,” said Ms. Bryant, who is about $10,000 behind on rent. “I’m ecstatic that I don’t have to explain to my kids in five days that we have nowhere to live.”
At the same time, Ms. Bryant, 39, was frustrated that help took so long to arrive.
“It’s been an emotional and psychological roller coaster,” she said. “I don’t understand how it’s taken so long to pass the relief that is so desperately needed.”
Congressional leaders and Mr. Mnuchin, the emissary dispatched on behalf of the White House, had spent most of December racing to break a monthslong impasse over how to provide the most significant infusion of federal pandemic relief since April and address a number of provisions set to lapse at the end of the month.
Lawmakers in both parties spent the weekend urging Mr. Trump to sign the bill and reverse course, seething over his decision to upend legislation that passed with bipartisan approval after months of delay. His decision to implicitly threaten a veto presented a particularly fraught situation for Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, two Georgia Republicans in runoff races that will determine control of the Senate. The pair had begun to campaign on passage of the relief before the implicit veto threat, and were quick to issue a joint statement hailing its passage.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers who had helped break a monthslong logjam in Congress over stimulus aid urged either an immediate signature or a veto in order to “allow those in favor to act before it is too late.”
“I understand he wants to be remembered for advocating for big checks,” Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, 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.”
Over the holiday weekend spent at his Florida estate and golf club, Mr. Trump had appeared to double down on his resistance to the legislation. But in a reversal shortly before the signing on Sunday evening, he suddenly teased on Twitter: “Good news on Covid Relief Bill. Information to follow!”