CORONAVIRUS

Impasse raises doubts on when Americans will see pandemic aid

Trump could scuttle relief bill by taking no action at all

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump on Wednesday afternoon depart the White House. (Toni L. Sandys/Washi
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump on Wednesday afternoon depart the White House. (Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s last-minute move to renounce a sweeping coronavirus relief package is escalating confusion and panic among Republicans while setting the stage for an uncomfortable confrontation Thursday that could lead GOP lawmakers to object to their own president’s demand for larger payments for Americans.

The chaos is unfolding against the backdrop of another possible government shutdown, with funding set to lapse starting Tuesday unless a spending bill is signed into law along with the COVID-19 aid bill.

While the president hasn’t explicitly threatened a veto, his defiance of a deal negotiated by his own administration could spark a standoff that conceivably could last until Joe Biden is inaugurated Jan. 20.

The continued mayhem Wednesday threw into doubt how quickly help would get in the hands of millions of Americans struggling under the economic weight of the pandemic, including the direct payments that had become one of the most visible provisions of the aid.

In a Twitter video that caught lawmakers by surprise, Trump decried some items as too costly while advocating $2,000 stimulus checks instead of the $600 approved.

The video that upended the stimulus plan was recorded in secret by the president in the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room, with holiday garland and gleaming ornaments draped on the fireplace behind him. It was orchestrated by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and kept from all but a handful of aides until it was posted Tuesday night.

The bombshell video handed Democrats in two vital Senate races in Georgia a fresh political weapon against their GOP opponents, with Trump undercutting Sens. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., as they took a victory lap over securing the $600 checks.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced that Democrats would seek to pass a bill at a short House session that would provide $2,000 checks — though the measure could easily be blocked by Republicans.

Though Trump is calling for the direct payments to more than triple, he also faces pressure from the right to veto the massive package for its price tag. The $900 billion aid bill is combined with a $1.4 trillion annual spending bill.

Russ Vought, director of the Office of Management and Budget, wants the president to veto the measure, as do a drumbeat of conservative radio hosts and advocates.

“The process was the worst I’ve ever seen, on any bill in Congress, and we’re already looking at $1.8 trillion annual deficit — and that’s before this,” said Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for the conservative FreedomWorks organization.

Trump could sink the coronavirus relief and spending bill by doing nothing. The bill has yet to be transmitted to him, meaning the 10-day veto window will expire after the current Congress adjourns Jan. 3, thereby voiding it. Unemployment benefits are also set to expire for 12 million Americans on Saturday.

But multiple congressional aides said their real concern was midnight Monday, when a temporary government funding bill expires.

If the standoff is not resolved by then, the aides said, an extended government shutdown could potentially continue until Biden’s inauguration. While Democrats are happy to increase the size of the stimulus checks, they said, they will not be willing to pursue a wholesale renegotiation of the relief bill or the spending bill for fiscal 2021, which were negotiated separately and then joined.

In his video, Trump focused largely on foreign aid, arts and humanities and fish as examples of wasteful spending.

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“$7 million for reef fish management, $25 billion to combat Asian carp, $2.5 million to count the number of amberjack fish in the Gulf of Mexico. A provision to promote the breeding of fish in federal hatcheries,” he listed among programs he didn’t think should be funded.

But many of the spending programs he criticized had been proposed in his own budget.

They include $1.3 billion for Egypt and the Egyptian military (Trump’s budget asked for all $1.3 billion); $134 million for Myanmar (his budget sought nearly $131.5 million); and $40 million for the Kennedy Center (his budget sought slightly more, $40.4 million).

The Washington Post and Associated Press contributed.

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