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Joe Biden has demanded Donald Trump immediately sign a broad government funding bill as unemployment benefits lapse for millions of out-of-work Americans, with the president-elect calling the president’s refusal an “abdication of responsibility” with “devastating consequences.”
Extended unemployment relief that has served as a critical lifeline for millions of Americans during the public health crisis expired on Saturday, following the president’s last-minute rejection of a spending package that includes $900bn in coronavirus aid.
“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,” he said in a statement on Saturday.
If the president refuses to sign the bill or veto it altogether, he threatens a broad range of Covid-19-related relief measures for roughly 14 million people, including weekly unemployment payments and a federal moratorium on evictions that is set to expire on New Year’s Eve.
After several weeks of negotiations before an 11th-hour deadline on Monday, Congress agreed to a $900bn relief package that includes $600 in one-time direct cheques to most Americans, along with an extension of $300 in federal weekly unemployment aid, in addition to state-level benefits, for 11 weeks.
But on Wednesday, before he left the White House to spend Christmas at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, the president released a video message calling the legislation a “disgrace” and demanded Congress "immediately get rid of the wasteful and unnecessary items” from the bill.
On Saturday, he announced: “I simply want to get our great people $2000, rather than the measly $600 that is now in the bill. Also, stop the billions of dollars in pork’."
The president has conflated the omnibus spending bill, which includes budget items the White House sought months ago and that his Republican allies have approved, with the relief package, arguing that it does not contain enough one-time direct payments to most Americans and includes too much in foreign aid.
Those budget items were among those negotiated between Congress and the White House. On Monday, 128 of 195 House Republicans voted to support the budget.
If he does sign the bill on Saturday, there is still likely to be a temporary lapse in benefits, as states scramble to adjust to the new timeline, potentially cutting off aid for out-of-work Americans for at least a week, effectively cutting aid down from 11 weeks to just 10, according to Michele Evermore with the National Employment Law Project.
The bill signs off on $600 cheques for most Americans, but Mr Trump has pushed for $2,000 checks – Democrats have pushed for larger checks for months, following a one-time payment in April of $1,200, but were repeatedly rejected by congressional Republicans.
Mr Biden has repeatedly referred to the funding measure as a “down payment” ahead of his inauguration on 20 January, after which he has pledged more support to Americans during the emergency.
During debate over the latest relief package, Democrats sought another round of similarly sized checks, but those efforts were blocked by lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Senate, arguing that higher payments would negatively impact the federal deficit, despite their overwhelming support for corporate tax deductions in the bill, along with the president’s $1.75trn tax cuts and the recent passage of a $741bn defence budget.
Democrats have sought to leverage the president’s demands for $2,000 payments, but Republicans rebuffed the president’s demands on Christmas Eve.
“Why would politicians not want to give people $2,000, rather than only $600?" the president said on Twitter on Christmas, which he spent playing on golf. "Give our people the money!”
More than 20 million Americans are relying on some form of unemployment aid.
Roughly 869,000 people filed new claims for state jobless benefits within the last week ending on 19 December, which has fallen from the previous week but is significantly higher than jobless claims from a month earlier, before a new spike in Covid-19 infections and deaths across the US.
Nearly 400,000 people filed for aid through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance programme, one of two federal programmes that will expire without the president’s signature.
A partial government shutdown will also begin on Tuesday unless Congress can agree to a temporary stop-gap measure to fund the government until it can reach an agreement on the larger funding bill.