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Members of Congress were touting it as a Christmas gift. Many Americans breathed a small sigh of relief that they’d get some help — not much, but some — as they continue to struggle through the pandemic.
Now that relief and joy have turned to confusion as President Donald Trump has asked for changes in the government spending and relief bill that was passed by Congress last week.
Last Monday, Congress passed a massive bill that combined roughly $900 billion for pandemic relief with a $1.4 trillion spending package that is needed to keep the government operational. The relief package, which was made possible by the negotiations of a multipartisan group of senators and House members, including Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, includes $600 relief payments to most Americans. It also includes funding to help small businesses, and unemployed workers, along with money for COVID testing and vaccinations as the coronavirus pandemic worsens in many parts of the U.S.
Because the relief spending and government funding bill were merged into one piece of legislation, critics of both have used the confusion to build opposition to portions of both measures. Some Republicans, including Trump, are now complaining that the relief bill included billions of dollars for foreign countries, but only $600 for Americans. The money for other countries, along with money for government operations, was long part of a must-pass funding bill. The relief bill was crafted separately.
Without Trump’s signature by Monday, some government operations could shut down on Tuesday morning.
Trump’s objection to the massive bill was unexpected. The reason for his objection was even more surprising: The president believes the $600 stimulus payments are too little.
“I am asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000 or $4,000 for a couple,” Trump said in a video on Tuesday.
Trump’s right that $600 is too low to truly help Americans who are struggling with job losses, hunger, potential evictions and other hardships tied to the pandemic.
Although not mentioned by the president, the $300 a week in enhanced unemployment benefits are also too low to help jobless Americans or to stimulate the economy.
Previous legislation, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, had included an extra $600 in unemployment benefits, but that expired during the summer.
While Trump’s conclusion may be correct, his timing is not. His administration — through Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows — had proffered a $1.8 trillion relief package earlier this fall. Both Democrats and Republicans objected to the plan. The House passed two relief plans, costing $3 trillion and $2 trillion. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently offered a $500 billion plan that did not include funding for unemployed Americans or to help state and local governments that have seen a decline in revenues because of the pandemic and its associated restrictions.
If Trump wanted larger payments to Americans, he should have brokered negotiations directly with congressional leaders or, at least, made sure his emissaries, Mnuchin and Meadows sealed a deal that included the $2,000 payments.
Balking now at the package that Congress has passed will only hurt those Americans who are already struggling, as aid programs end this month. If he refuses to sign the bill, those Americans will have to wait at least a month until a new Congress and new administration begins another round of negotiations on relief legislation.
Trump is also ignoring political reality. Although he says he supports larger payments for struggling Americans, many of his Republican colleagues do not.
So, the prospects of passing a larger relief bill are dim. On Thursday, an unusual Christmas Eve vote on $2,000 relief payments failed in the House, as Republican lawmakers voted against it. The chamber is expected to vote again on Monday.
The situation in Congress is further muddied by the fact that Trump vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress on Dec. 18. The fairly routine bill funds many military operations for the next year.
Trump’s last-minute objections — and blurring of the differences between funding government operations and providing coronavirus-related relief to the American people and businesses — highlight his disengagement from his presidential duties. While he plays golf and spreads disinformation about November’s election, millions of American workers are losing the support they need to make it through the pandemic.
It is not too late for Trump to learn the lessons of the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge. Yes, the relief and spending bill passed last week is far from perfect. But, by signing it, the president can improve the welfare of millions of Americans.