Millions of Americans are without unemployment benefits after President Donald Trump held firm to his opposition to a bipartisan congressional stimulus package approved just before Christmas.
The benefits expired on Saturday night, hours after Mr Trump reiterated his criticism of the deal, which was negotiated by his Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and congressional leaders from both parties. It is now awaiting the president’s signature at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where the first family spent Christmas.
Mr Trump has said he would not sign the bill unless Congress increased the direct payment cheques sent to Americans from $600 to $2,000 per adult.
“Increase payments to the people, get rid of the ‘pork’,” Mr Trump tweeted in the early hours of Sunday morning, referring to “pork” spending, or the appropriation of government money for local pet projects.
Mr Trump’s refusal to sign the bill means the federal government could shut down at one minute after midnight on Tuesday morning, which would lead to many government workers being furloughed, if there is no breakthrough or Congress does not pass another short-term spending measure.
President-elect Joe Biden rebuked Mr Trump over the weekend, urging him to sign what he described as urgently needed legislation.
“It is the day after Christmas, and millions of families don’t know if they’ll be able to make ends meet because of President Donald Trump’s refusal to sign an economic relief bill approved by Congress with an overwhelming and bipartisan majority,” Mr Biden said in a statement. “This abdication of responsibility has devastating consequences.”
Mr Biden said he considered the bill “a first step and down payment” for the country’s economic recovery. His administration would need to take more action “early in the new year to revive the economy and contain the pandemic — including meeting the dire need for funding to distribute and administer the vaccine and to increase our testing capacity”.
Earlier this month, the Brookings Institution estimated that about 10m Americans would lose unemployment benefits once two federal unemployment programmes expired on the night of December 26.
Other economists believe the number could be even higher, given the number of Americans who had lost their jobs since the Thanksgiving holiday.
One programme provides benefits for gig workers, who often do not qualify for most unemployment benefits. The other gives an additional 13 weeks of payments to workers who have been unemployed for so long that they no longer meet the eligibility requirements for state and local unemployment benefits.
The nearly 5,600-page bill passed by Congress last week would allow unemployed Americans to claim unemployment aid for 50 weeks, and provide a supplemental $300 a week in benefits to workers who had lost their jobs. It also provided billions of dollars in funds for struggling industries, such as the airlines, and to help tenants who have fallen behind on their rent payments.
Congress will return to Washington early this week to take up the issue. While the Democratic-controlled House is set to vote to increase the stimulus cheques from $600 to $2,000, as Democrats have long asked for, and Mr Trump is now requesting, it is unclear how the Republican-controlled Senate will respond to Mr Trump’s demands.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who was with Mr Trump at Christmas, tweeted on Friday that the president was “more determined than ever to increase stimulus payments to $2000 per person”, a demand that he said was “reasonable”.
However, Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont and one of the most vocal Senate proponents of the $2,000 cheques, said Mr Trump needed to sign Congress’s initial legislation first.
“What the president is doing right now is unbelievably cruel. Many millions of people are losing their extended unemployment benefits,” Mr Sanders told ABC News on Sunday.
Mr Sanders added: “I want $2,000. The American people want $2,000. They need it given the economic crisis. So what we need to do is have the president sign that bill today, right now. Or else the suffering of this country will be immense and then we can immediately deal with the $2,000.”