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Lawmakers press Trump on COVID relief bill as jobless aid expires

​President Donald Trump appeared no closer to signing an end-of-year COVID relief and spending bill Sunday as unemployment aid expired, the government barrels toward a mid-pandemic shutdown and lawmakers implored him to break the impasse he created after Congress approved the deal.  

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Washington Published on: December 27, 2020 23:21 IST
Lawmakers press Trump on COVID relief bill as jobless aid
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Lawmakers press Trump on COVID relief bill as jobless aid expires

President Donald Trump appeared no closer to signing an end-of-year COVID relief and spending bill Sunday as unemployment aid expired, the government barrels toward a mid-pandemic shutdown and lawmakers implored him to break the impasse he created after Congress approved the deal.

The fate of the bipartisan package remained in limbo after Trump blindsided members of both parties with a demand for larger COVID relief checks and complained about “pork” spending, even as help for millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet lapsed overnight. The federal government will run out of money at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday if Trump refuses to sign the bill as he spends the holidays in Florida.

In the face of economic hardship and spreading disease, several lawmakers urged Trump to sign the legislation immediately, then have Congress follow up with more relief.

“What the president is doing right now is unbelievably cruel,” Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said Sunday. “So many people are hurting.”

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania also said Trump should sign the bill, then make the case for more. “We’ve got a bill right now that his administration helped negotiate,” he said. “I think we ought to get that done.”

That point was echoed by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who’s criticized Trump’s pandemic response and his efforts to undo the election results. “I just gave up guessing what he might do next,” he said. Hogan and Sanders spoke on ABC’s “This Week,” Toomey on “Fox News Sunday.”

In South Bend, Indiana, Lanetris Haines, a self-employed single mother of three, stood to lose her $129 weekly jobless benefit unless Trump signed the package into law or succeeded in his improbable quest for changes.

“It’s a chess game and we are pawns,” she said.

Trump was spending Sunday golfing at his West Palm Beach course.

He has given no indication he plans to sign the bill as he spends the last days of his presidency in a rage. Indeed, his dissatisfaction with the legislation seems only to have grown in recent days as he has criticized it both privately to club members and publicly on Twitter.

“I simply want to get our great people $2000, rather than the measly $600 that is now in the bill,” he tweeted Saturday. “Also, stop the billions of dollars in ‘pork.’”

Washington has been reeling since Trump turned on the deal, without warning, after it had won sweeping approval in both houses of Congress and after the White House had assured Republican leaders that Trump would support it.

Instead, he assailed the bill’s plan to provide $600 COVID relief checks to most Americans — insisting it should be $2,000. House Republicans swiftly rejected that idea during a rare Christmas Eve session. But Trump has not been swayed in spite of the nation being in the grip of a pandemic.

As the impasse dragged on, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health warned that the country is at a “critical point” in COVID-19 infections, with the Christmas and New Year’s holidays posing the threat of a “surge upon a surge” as people congregate with families and others, against the advice of public-health officials.

“As we get into the next few weeks, it might actually get worse,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

President-elect Joe Biden called on Trump to sign the bill immediately as the midnight Saturday deadline neared for two federal programs providing unemployment aid. He accused Trump of an “abdication of responsibility” that has “devastating consequences.”

The impact is already beginning. Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, has calculated that 11 million people would lose aid from the programs immediately without additional relief; millions more would exhaust other unemployment benefits within weeks.

Andrew Stettner, an unemployment insurance expert and senior fellow at the Century Foundation think tank, said the number may be closer to 14 million because joblessness has spiked since Thanksgiving.

How and when people would be affected by the lapse depended on the state they lived in, the program they were relying on and when they applied for benefits. In some states, people on regular unemployment insurance would continue to receive payments under a program that extends benefits when the jobless rate surpassed a certain threshold, Stettner said.

About 9.5 million people, however, had been relying on the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that expired altogether Saturday. That program made unemployment insurance available to freelancers, gig workers and others who were normally not eligible. After receiving their last checks, those recipients would not be able to file for more aid, Stettner said.

While payments could be received retroactively, any gap would mean more hardship and uncertainty for Americans who had already grappled with bureaucratic delays, often depleting much of their savings to stay afloat while waiting for payments to kick in.

They were people like Earl McCarthy, a father of four who lives in South Fulton, Georgia, and had been relying on unemployment since losing his job as a sales representative for a luxury senior living community. He said he would be left with no income by the second week of January if Trump refused to sign the bill.

McCarthy said he already burned through much of his savings as he waited five months to begin receiving about $350 a week in unemployment benefits.

“The entire experience was horrifying,” said McCarthy. “I shudder to think if I had not saved anything or had an emergency fund through those five months, where would we have been?”

He added, “It’s going to be difficult if the president doesn’t sign this bill.”

The bill would also activate a weekly $300 federal supplement to unemployment payments. In addition to the unemployment benefits that have already lapsed, Trump’s continued refusal to sign the bill would lead to the expiration of eviction protections and put on hold a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theaters, as well as money for cash-starved transit systems and for vaccine distribution.

Sharon Shelton Corpening had been hoping the extra help would allow her 83-year-old mother, with whom she lives, to stop eating into her Social Security payments to make their $1,138 rent.

Corpening, who lives in the Atlanta area, had launched a freelance content strategy business that was just taking off before the pandemic hit, prompting several of her contracts to fall through. She was receiving about $125 a week under the pandemic unemployment program and says she would be unable to pay her bills in about a month. This, despite her temporary work for the U.S. census and as an elections poll worker.

“On the brink,” Corpening, who lobbies for Unemployment Action, a project launched by the Center for Popular Democracy to fight for relief, said of her predicament. “One more month, if that. Then, I run out of everything.”

In addition to the unemployment benefits that have already lapsed, Trump’s continued refusal to sign the bill would lead to the expiration of eviction protections and put on hold a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theaters, as well as money for cash-starved transit systems and for vaccine distribution.

The relief was also attached to a $1.4 trillion government funding bill to keep the federal government operating through September, which would mean that failing to sign it by Tuesday would trigger a federal shutdown.

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