Trump relents, signs COVID aid, sparks fresh fight in GOP

FILE – In this Dec. 12, 2020, file photo President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington before boarding Marine One. Unemployment benefits for millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet were set to lapse at midnight Saturday night unless Trump signed an end-of-year COVID relief and spending bill that had been considered a done deal before his sudden objections. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. | Shelving his objections, President Donald Trump has signed a $2 trillion-plus COVID-19 and annual federal spending package providing relief for millions of Americans, even as Congress returns to confront the White House on remaining priorities in a rare end-of-session showdown.

Trump appears to have accomplished little, if anything, from the days of drama over his refusal to accept the sweeping bipartisan deal. While the president’s demands for larger $2,000 pandemic relief checks seem destined to fail, his push served up a political opportunity for Democrats, who support the larger stipends and are forcing Trump’s Republican allies into a tough spot.

On Monday, the Democratic-led House is set to vote to boost the $600 payments to $2,000, sending a new bill to the Senate. There, Republicans have the majority but reject more spending and are likely to defeat the effort.

The showdown offers more symbol than substance, and it’s not expected to alter the massive package that Trump reluctantly signed into law late Sunday after golfing at his Florida club. The $900 billion in COVID aid and $1.4 trillion to fund government agencies will deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and avert a federal government shutdown that otherwise would have started Tuesday.

Together with votes Monday and Tuesday to override Trump’s veto of a sweeping defense bill, the action is perhaps the last standoff of the president’s final days in office as he imposes fresh demands and disputes the results of the presidential election. The new Congress is set to be sworn in Sunday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., seized on the divide between the president and his party, urging Trump to put pressure on his Senate GOP allies to pass the bill.

“The President must immediately call on Congressional Republicans to end their obstruction and to join him and Democrats in support of our stand-alone legislation to increase direct payment checks to $2,000,” Pelosi said in a tweet.

Trump’s sudden decision to sign the bill came as he faced escalating criticism from lawmakers on all sides over his eleventh-hour demands. The bipartisan bill negotiated by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had already passed the House and Senate by wide margins. Lawmakers had thought they had Trump’s blessing after months of negotiations with his administration.

The president’s defiant refusal to act, publicized with a heated video he tweeted just before the Christmas holiday, sparked chaos, a lapse in unemployment benefits for millions and the threat of a government shutdown in the midst of a pandemic. It was another crisis of his own making, resolved when he ultimately signed the bill into law.

In his statement about the signing, Trump repeated his frustrations with the COVID-19 relief bill for providing only $600 checks to most Americans and complained about what he considered unnecessary spending, particularly on foreign aid.

While the president insisted he would send Congress “a redlined version” with spending items he wants removed, those are merely suggestions to Congress. The bill, as signed, would not necessarily be changed.

Democrats, who have the majority in the House, “will reject any rescissions” submitted by the president, said Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, chair of the Appropriations Committee.

For now, the administration can only begin work sending out the $600 payments.

Republican Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, a conservative who supported Trump’s extraordinary and futile challenge of the election results, counted himself Monday among the opponents of a more generous relief package and Trump’s call for higher payments.

“It’s money we don’t have, we have to borrow to get and we can’t afford to pay back,” he said on “Fox and Friends.”

But Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York said she was open to the idea of $2,000 checks. “Many Americans are in dire need of relief,” she said on the show.

Altogether, Republicans and Democrats alike 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 Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “I thank the President for signing this relief into law.”

Others slammed Trump’s delay in turning the bill into law. In a tweet, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., accused Trump of having “played Russian roulette with American lives. A familiar and comfortable place for him.”

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., 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,” Schumer tweeted. “Then I will move to pass it in the Senate.” He said no Democrats will object. “Will Senate Republicans?”

Democrats are promising more aid to come once President-elect Joe Biden takes office, but Republicans are signaling a wait-and-see approach.

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.

Republican Sen. 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 behavior if he allows this to expire.”

Republican Rep. 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.”

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