Trump leaves Washington in limbo with relief threat

The Hill
The Hill

President Trump has left Washington in limbo after signaling opposition to the massive coronavirus relief and government funding package passed with bipartisan support this week, threatening a government shutdown in his final days in office.

Trump, who left Washington for his Mar-a-Lago resort on Palm Beach, Fla., on Wednesday, did not definitively say he would veto the $2.3 trillion package, but his opposition left members of both parties shaking their heads and wondering if he’d come around to sign the legislation before funding is set to run out on Dec. 29.

Congress would have limited options and time should Trump veto the package.

The most plausible move may be for Congress to pass a weeks-long continuing resolution to fund the government through the beginning of January.

Lawmakers could also vote to override the veto, which would set up a clash between Republicans and Trump. Yet it is unclear whether Trump will veto the measure, complicating that route. Trump has yet to formally receive the legislation, which is being enrolled.

Congress is expected to return to Washington next week in order to vote on overriding Trump’s veto of annual defense policy legislation.

It’s also possible that Trump could “pocket veto” the legislation if he does not sign it and the 116th Congress ends during the 10-day period after Trump receives the bill.

The first bit of drama will come Thursday, with Democrats seeking unanimous consent in the House to increase the amount of direct payments to Americans with annual incomes below $75,000 from $600 to $2,000, as Trump demanded.

Democrats support the bigger checks, but a number of Republicans do not, and the move by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is intended to put GOP lawmakers on the spot.

Pelosi said in a letter Wednesday to Democratic lawmakers that during the negotiations over the relief package, Republicans wouldn’t go above $600 for direct payments and were silent when asked how high Trump would go. She urged Trump to press House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to accept Democrats’ request to approve $2,000 payments by unanimous consent.

“If the President truly wants to join us in $2,000 payments, he should call upon Leader McCarthy to agree to our Unanimous Consent request,” Pelosi wrote.

McCarthy told GOP House members during a call Tuesday afternoon that he’s willing to object to the request and may offer his own request on spending cuts.

The surprise battle over the end-of-the-year package also has implications for the two Georgia runoff elections that will determine control of the Senate in 2021. The two Democratic candidates, Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, quickly expressed support for increasing the direct payments to $2,000.

Warnock’s opponent, Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), when asked Wednesday if she’d back raising the direct payment to $2,000, said, “I'll certainly look at supporting it if it repurposes wasteful spending toward that.”

A spokesperson for Sen. David Perdue ’s (R-Ga.) campaign did not respond to requests for comment. Perdue faces Ossoff in the runoff.

Failure to promptly enact a relief package could further hamper an economy already showing new signs of slowing as coronavirus cases explode across the country, forcing some states and localities to implement new restrictions on businesses to curb COVID-19’s spread.

Two unemployment assistance programs funded by the CARES Act are set to expire the day after Christmas, and the federal moratorium on evictions will expire at the end of the year. As of mid-December, more than 14 million weekly claims were being made in the two programs alone.

A shutdown would put millions of federal employees on furlough in the midst of the economic downturn while closing nonessential services. Trump has already presided over the longest shutdown in U.S. history, a 35-day affair from December 2018 through January 2019 over funding for his border wall.

It is unclear how seriously Trump is considering vetoing the legislation if Congress does not meet his demands. McCarthy told GOP members on the call Wednesday that he spoke with Trump and wasn’t sure whether he would veto it.

Stephen Moore , an outside economic adviser to Trump, said it is impossible to predict what the president would do but argued in favor of vetoing the legislation, which he criticized as being filled with “pork” and spending programs unrelated to the public health crisis.

“Trump was elected in no small part by promising to drain the swamp and this bill is the swamp on steroids,” Moore said.

One former White House official attributed Trump’s last-minute objection to the bill as a bid to stay relevant in the waning weeks of his term.

“Plenty of merit to the criticism of $600 being too low, but the time to weigh in was before Congress voted. Now all these Republicans are in a bad spot, but it is particularly problematic for the Georgia runoffs. Trump has handed Warnock and Ossoff a lifeline,” the former official said. “It’s proof that you can spend four years in the White House and still not have a clue about politics.”

The inclusion and size of direct payments in the relief package had been a topic of debate over the past month.

There were no direct payments in the $908 billion proposal offered by a bipartisan group of House and Senate moderates, which served as a starting point for much of the discussions. That prompted criticism from progressive lawmakers such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as well as Republican Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). Checks were also a priority of the White House, with Mnuchin offering a $916 billion proposal that included $600 payments.

Payments of $600 per adult and per child ultimately made it into the bill after lawmakers agreed to set aside two contentious issues: aid to state and local governments and liability protections. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that the direct payment provisions in the bill would cost $164 billion, about the same size as the amount of state and local aid in the moderates’ proposal.

Most lawmakers who championed direct payments said that they wished the payments in the bill were bigger — and were at least the size of the $1,200 payments authorized in legislation enacted in March — but nonetheless voted for the package.

The Washington Post reported last week that Trump wanted to publicly push for checks of up to $2,000 to be included in the legislation but that aides talked him out of it at the time.

Niv Elis and Juliegrace Brufke contributed.

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