WASHINGTON — The fate of $900 billion in pandemic aid will remain in limbo over the Christmas break after House Democrats tried and failed Thursday to more than triple the size of relief checks, then adjourned the House until Monday, when they will try again.
President Donald Trump’s implicit threat Tuesday to reject a relief compromise that overwhelmingly passed both chambers unless lawmakers agreed to raise the bill’s $600 direct payment checks to $2,000 has continued to roil Congress while rattling an already teetering economic recovery.
Trump decamped for Mar-a-Lago, his club in Palm Beach, Florida, on Wednesday without saying another public word on the relief bill’s fate, leaving both parties to guess whether he really intends to veto the long-delayed measure, which includes the pandemic aid as well as funding to keep the government open past Monday.
The result of the dysfunction is that millions of Americans who were counting on relief in the immediate future, or even continued unemployment checks, are not going to get them, barring a surprise bill signing in Florida.
On Thursday, the Government Publishing Office finished physically printing the nearly 5,600-page package, and congressional leaders signed it before it was to be flown to Florida by the White House for Trump’s possible signature. But if the president does nothing, the legislation — and its relief — will die Jan. 3 with the statutory end of the 116th Congress. Government funding, extended unemployment benefits and a continued eviction moratorium will have lapsed even before then.
“The best way out of this is for the president to sign the bill,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Republican leadership, “and I still hope that’s what he decides.”
The Democrats’ Christmas Eve gambit on the House floor was never meant to pass, but the party’s leaders hoped to put Republicans in a bind — choosing between the president’s wishes for far more largesse and their own inclinations for modest spending.
Republicans rejected the request by the House majority leader, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, for unanimous consent to pass a measure fulfilling Trump’s demand for $2,000 checks. Without support from both Republican and Democratic leadership, such requests cannot be entertained on the House floor. Republicans then failed to put forward their own request to revisit the foreign aid provision of the spending legislation that Trump has also objected to, although most of the items came almost dollar for dollar from his own budget request.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California vowed in a statement Thursday to hold a roll-call vote on the direct payments legislation Monday, declaring that voting against it would “deny the financial hardship that families face and to deny them the relief they need.”
With government funding set to lapse at the end of day Monday, House lawmakers are also considering the possibility of another stopgap spending bill — which would be the fifth such spending measure this month — to prevent a shutdown, Hoyer said.
But in the meantime, Republican leaders were left wondering aloud why Congress was still dealing with a matter on Christmas Eve that they thought had been finally put to rest Monday night.
“There’s a long list of positive things that we’d be talking about today if we weren’t talking about this,” Blunt told reporters on Capitol Hill. “And I think that would be to the president’s advantage if we were talking about his accomplishments rather than questioning decisions late in the administration.”
The pandemic relief and government spending bill, which passed both chambers this week with overwhelming bipartisan support, contains the first significant federal relief since April. If the president doesn’t sign it, millions of Americans are set to lose access to two federal unemployment programs that were expanded under the $2.2 trillion stimulus law that passed in March and lapses after this week.
A series of additional relief provisions, including an eviction moratorium, are set to expire at the end of the month, and other temporary relief protections shielding millions of Americans from the brunt of the pandemic’s economic toll will lapse shortly after the new year without action.
Ahead of two runoff Senate elections in Georgia, Trump has also forced a tense situation for his party, setting up another loyalty test for his most devoted supporters that hinges on rejecting a $2.3 trillion package negotiated in part by top White House officials.
The president “doesn’t give a damn about people,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., who grew emotional as she recounted calls from constituents pleading for federal support during the holiday season. “He sowed more fear. He threw kerosene on a fire.”
Rank-and-file Republicans are expressing frustration as well. On Wednesday evening, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, argued that House Republicans had stood by Trump for four years.
“If he thinks going on Twitter and trashing the bill his team negotiated and we supported on his behalf is going to bring more people to his side in this election fiasco, I hope he’s wrong, though I guess we’ll see,” Gonzalez wrote on Twitter.
On behalf of Republicans, Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia tried and failed Thursday to gain consideration of a separate request to revisit the annual spending for foreign policy matters, given that Trump had also objected to how those funds were being spent. (That legislation had also secured the support of 128 Republicans when it passed the House on Monday.)
“House Democrats appear to be suffering from selective hearing,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader, wrote in a letter to colleagues after Trump’s videotaped objection to the bill. “They have conveniently ignored the concerns of the president and shared by our constituents, that we ought to reexamine how our tax dollars are spent overseas.”
But other Republican leaders were not particularly eager to renegotiate the spending portion of the bill either. Blunt said he believed Trump was confused about the separation between the pandemic relief part of the bill and the foreign aid proposed by his own administration in the government spending portion.
“Certainly, the negotiated foreign aid provisions would not benefit by opening that part of the bill up, and frankly, if you start opening part of the bill up, it’s hard to defend not opening the whole bill up,” Blunt told reporters at the Capitol on Thursday. “It took us a long time to get to where we are. I think reopening that bill would be a mistake.”
At a news conference after the unsuccessful motions, Hoyer said House Democrats only agreed to the $600 checks in the stimulus compromise because Republicans negotiating the deal, including the president’s representative, Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, insisted on that number.
“Mr. Mnuchin suggested a lower figure might have been appropriate,” Hoyer told reporters. Asked if it had been a mistake to tie the relief package and the spending omnibus together given the conflation of various spending provisions, Hoyer noted “perhaps the only mistake was believing the president and Mnuchin when we were told that the bill to be passed would be signed by the president of the United States.”