CORONAVIRUS

Pandemic aid impasse lingers over holiday

Lawmakers return next week after clashing Thursday

U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md) holds a news conference Thursday about the pandemic relief bill on Capitol
U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md) holds a news conference Thursday about the pandemic relief bill on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Lenin Nolly/Tribune News Service)

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republicans shot down a Democratic bid Thursday to pass President Donald Trump’s long shot, end-of-session demand for $2,000 direct payments to most Americans as he ponders whether to sign a COVID-19 relief bill.

The made-for-TV clash came as the Democratic-controlled chamber convened for a pro forma session that had been scheduled in anticipation of Trump signing the massive, year-end legislative package, which folds together a $1.4 trillion governmentwide spending bill with the hard-fought pandemic aid package and dozens of unrelated bills.

Instead, Thursday’s 12-minute House session morphed into theater in response to Trump’s veto musings about the package, which had been negotiated by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on his behalf.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat, sought the unanimous approval of all House members to pass the bigger checks, but GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, who was not in the nearly-empty chamber, blocked it.

At the same time, House Democrats blocked a measure sought by Republicans to reevaluate spending on foreign aid — something Trump also pushed for earlier this week.

If Trump were to follow through on his implied veto threat, delivered via video clip Tuesday night, the government would likely experience a partial shutdown starting Tuesday. It also would delay delivery of the $600 direct payments the bill contains, and other help for the unemployed and people facing eviction.

Unemployment benefits for 14 million Americans expire Saturday. An eviction moratorium protecting as many as 30 million Americans expires at year end.

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The push for bigger payments has created rare common cause between Trump and some of the most liberal members of Congress. House Speaker Pelosi, D-Calif., said they fought for the higher stipends during protracted negotiations only to settle on the lower number when Republicans refused.

Democrats plan to hold a roll-call vote on the $2,000 check proposal when lawmakers return Monday to Washington.

Senate Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have opposed larger $2,000 checks as too costly and poorly targeted.

The path forward, including efforts to avert a shutdown or perhaps even pass a last-ditch extension of soon-to-expire jobless checks, remained unclear. Any shutdown would probably be brief, but nothing is certain.

“We’re not going to let the government shut down, nor are we going to let the American people down,” Hoyer said. “There are continuing discussions going on between the speaker, and the secretary of the Treasury and the administration.”

The optics appear terrible for Republicans, who had lobbed praise at the COVID-19 relief package, which passed Monday by sweeping votes after the White House assured GOP leaders that Trump supported it.

It has also created more headaches for Georgia GOP Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who are fighting for their political lives and for continued GOP control of the Senate in Jan. 5 runoff elections.

“The best way out of this is for the president to sign the bill,” Republican Sen. Roy Blunt said Thursday. “And I still hope that’s what he decides.”

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But rather than take the victory of the sweeping aid package, among the biggest in history, Trump is lashing out at GOP leaders for acknowledging Joe Biden as the president-elect and rebuffing his campaign to dispute the Electoral College results when they are tallied in Congress on Jan. 6.

“It is Christmas Eve, but it is not a silent night. All is not calm. For too many, nothing is bright. And for too many, they are not sleeping peacefully,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich. “I did a town hall last night that had people crying, people terrified of what is going to happen.”

If Trump vetoes the package, or allows it to expire with a “pocket veto” at the end of the year, Americans will go without massive amounts of relief.

Some sort of resolution could be forced next week. The House is set to return Monday, and the Senate Tuesday, for an expected vote to override Trump’s veto of a must-pass defense bill.

The Senate cleared the huge relief package by a 92-6 vote after the House approved it by 359-53. Those votes totals would be enough to override a veto should Trump decide to take that step.

The Washington Post contributed.

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