US President Donald Trump has signed a $900 billion (€737bn) pandemic relief package, ending days of drama over his refusal to accept the bipartisan deal that will deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and avert a federal government shutdown.
The massive bill includes $1.4 trillion (€1.1tn) to fund government agencies through September and contains other end-of-session priorities such as an increase in food stamp benefits.
The signing Sunday, at his private club in Florida, came amid escalating criticism over his eleventh-hour demands for larger, $2,000 (€1,600) relief checks and scaled-back spending even though the bill had already passed the House and Senate by wide margins. The bill was passed with what lawmakers had thought was Trump's blessing, and after months of negotiations with his administration.
His foot-dragging resulted in a lapse in unemployment benefits for millions struggling to make ends meet and threatened a government shutdown in the midst of a pandemic. But signing the bill into law prevents another crisis of Trump’s own creation and ends a standoff with his own party during the final days of his administration.
It was unclear what, if anything, Trump accomplished with his delay, beyond angering all sides and empowering Democrats to continue their push for higher relief checks, which his own party opposes.
In his statement, Trump repeated his frustrations with the COVID-19 relief bill for providing only $600 (€491) checks to most Americans instead of the $2,000 that his fellow Republicans already rejected. He also complained about what he considered unnecessary spending by the government at large.
“I will sign the Omnibus and COVID package with a strong message that makes clear to Congress that wasteful items need to be removed,” Trump said in the statement.
While the president insisted he would send Congress “a redlined version” with items to be removed under the rescission process, those are merely suggestions to Congress. The bill, as signed, would not necessarily be changed.
Democrats, who have the majority in the House, immediately vowed to prevent any cuts. Democrats “will reject any rescissions” submitted by the president, said Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. , in a statement.
Lawmakers now have breathing room to continue debating whether the relief checks should be as large as the president has demanded. The Democratic-led House supports the larger checks and is set to vote on the issue Monday, but it's expected to be ignored by the Republican-held Senate where spending faces opposition. For now, the administration can only begin work sending out the $600 payments.
Republicans and Democrats swiftly welcomed Trump's decision to sign the bill into law.
“The compromise bill is not perfect, but it will do an enormous amount of good for struggling Kentuckians and Americans across the country who need help now,” said Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell. “I thank the president for signing this relief into law."
House Speaker Democrat Nancy Pelosi, called the signing “welcome news for the fourteen million Americans who just lost the lifeline of unemployment benefits on Christmas weekend, and for the millions more struggling to stay afloat during this historic pandemic and economic crisis.”
But others slammed Trump's delay in turning the bill into law. In a tweet, Representative Gerry Connolly accused Trump of having “played Russian roulette with American lives. A familiar and comfortable place for him.”
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said he would offer Trump’s proposal for $2,000 checks for a vote in Senate — putting Republicans on the spot.
“The House will pass a bill to give Americans $2,000 checks. Then I will move to pass it in the Senate,” Schumer tweeted. “No Democrats will object. Will Senate Republicans?”
Democrats are promising more aid to come once President-elect Joe Biden takes office, but Republicans are signalling a wait-and-see approach.
Congress will push ahead Monday, with the House expected to vote to override Trump’s veto of an annual must-pass Defense bill, confronting the president on another big issue in the final days of the session. The Senate is expected to follow on Tuesday.
In the face of growing economic hardship, spreading disease and a looming shutdown, lawmakers spent Sunday urging Trump to sign the legislation immediately, then have Congress follow up with additional aid. Aside from unemployment benefits and relief payments to families, money for vaccine distribution, businesses and more was on the line. Protections against evictions also hung in the balance.
“What the president is doing right now is unbelievably cruel,” said Senator Bernie Sanders. “So many people are hurting [...] It is really insane and this president has got to finally [...] do the right thing for the American people and stop worrying about his ego.”
Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said he understood that Trump “wants to be remembered for advocating for big checks, but the danger is he’ll be remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behaviour if he allows this to expire.”
Toomey added: “So I think the best thing to do, as I said, sign this and then make the case for subsequent legislation.”
The same point was echoed by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican who’s criticised Trump’s pandemic response and his efforts to undo the election results. “I just gave up guessing what he might do next,” he said.
Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said too much is at stake for Trump to “play this old switcheroo game.”
“I don’t get the point,” he said. “I don’t understand what’s being done, why, unless it’s just to create chaos and show power and be upset because you lost the election.”
Washington had been reeling since Trump turned on the deal. Fingers pointed at administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, as lawmakers tried to understand whether they were misled about Trump’s position.
“Now to be put in a lurch, after the president’s own person negotiated something that the president doesn’t want, it’s just — it’s surprising,” Kinzinger said.
Kinzinger spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union,” and Hogan and Sanders on ABC’s “This Week.”