President Donald Trump has signed four executive orders aimed at helping Americans cope with the economic fallout from the pandemic, following the collapse in talks with Democrats over a Congressional rescue package.
Mr Trump approved one order that would partly renew unemployment benefits that were included in a previous stimulus package which expired last month. He also signed an order that would suspend the payroll tax — something he had wanted to do long before the recent talks with Congress.
The final two executive orders signed on Saturday would make it harder for landlords to evict tenants struggling to pay their rent or mortgages, and would ease the burden on students carrying education-related debt.
Mr Trump had threatened to take action after Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows failed to reach agreement with Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, and Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, over the contours of a rescue package.
“We have repeatedly stated our willingness to immediately sign legislation,” Mr Trump said at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey. “Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have chosen to hold this vital assistance hostage.”
The White House and Democrats have been at loggerheads for days over how to help the millions of Americans who have lost jobs because of the pandemic, as the unemployment rate remains in double digits.
Mr Trump did not explain how he would fund the renewed unemployment benefits and other measures given that Congress has not reached any deal to appropriate more money to deal with the pandemic and economic crisis.
Democrats have been pushing for a $3.4tn package, similar to the Heroes Act they passed in May. Republicans want to spend closer to $1tn, and accuse their rivals of trying to bail out Democratic-run cities and states.
Although Mr Trump has refused to consider a package anywhere near the size advocated by the Democrats, he wants to put something in place to reduce unemployment as he campaigns for re-election against Joe Biden.
Mr Trump has accused the Democrats of trying to block efforts to pass a rescue package in a bid to help his opponent. The labour department on Friday said the economy added 1.8m jobs in July, a sharp deceleration from the 4.8m created in June, while the unemployment rate was 10.2 per cent.
Many economists are concerned that the economic rebound will suffer a setback following the expiration of $600-a-week jobless benefits that were a crucial component of the $2.2tn Cares Act passed at the end of March.
Mr Trump said his order on benefits would provide unemployed Americans with $400 a week. He said the suspension of the payroll tax would apply to taxpayers who earned less than $100,000 annually and last for the year.
“This will mean bigger paychecks for working families as we race to produce a vaccine and eradicate the China virus, once and for all,” Mr Trump said before signing the orders.
At the start of the year, Mr Trump had been banking on a robust economy giving him a strong tailwind heading into the election in November. But the pandemic has devastated the economy, and his handling of the crisis has helped Mr Biden move ahead in national polls and critical swing states.
Mr Trump is also concerned that the recent spike in coronavirus cases in the American south and west will provide a fresh drag on the economy and prevent the emergence of the V-shaped recovery that he had argued would occur in the third quarter of the year just before the election.
While Mr Trump ordered a suspension of the payroll tax, which is used to fund programmes such as social security, it remained unclear whether the move would face a legal challenge.
Republicans are wary about tampering with the tax, although some have said the president was entitled to take the action. But Chuck Grassley, a veteran Iowa Republican lawmaker who chairs the Senate finance committee, this week questioned whether suspending the tax was legal.
While the White House and Democrats remain at an impasse, Senate Republicans are also divided over how much they should compromise. Some Republicans who face tough re-election fights in November are more willing to approve a bigger package, while others argue that the US needs to avoid further inflating its fiscal deficit.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi