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Trump refuses to budge over aid bill, imperiling jobless benefits for millions
[WASHINGTON] Millions of Americans are about to see their jobless benefits expire on Saturday as President Donald Trump has so far refused to sign into law a US$2.3 trillion pandemic aid and spending package, insisting that it did not do enough to help everyday people.
Mr Trump stunned Republicans and Democrats alike when he said this week he was unhappy with the massive bill, which provides US$892 billion in badly needed coronavirus relief, including extending emergency unemployment benefits that expire at the close of Dec 26, and US$1.4 trillion for normal government spending.
Without Mr Trump's signature, about 14 million people could lose those extra benefits, according to Labor Department data. A partial government shutdown will begin on Tuesday, putting millions of government workers' incomes at risk, unless Congress can agree a stop-gap government funding bill before then.
After months of wrangling, Republicans and Democrats agreed to the package last weekend, with the support of the White House. Mr Trump, who hands over power to Democratic President-elect Joe Biden on Jan 20, did not object to the terms of the deal before Congress voted it through on Monday night.
But since then he has complained that the bill gives too much money to special interests, cultural projects and foreign aid, while the provision of US$600 stimulus checks to millions of struggling Americans was too small. He has demanded that be raised to US$2,000.
"I simply want to get our great people US$2,000, rather than the measly US$600 that is now in the bill," the president tweeted on Saturday.
His refusal to sign prompted a sharp rebuke from Mr Biden, who called on the outgoing Republican president to act immediately.
"This abdication of responsibility has devastating consequences. ... This bill is critical. It needs to be signed into law now," Mr Biden, who is spending the holiday in his home state of Delaware, said in a statement. The president-elect was scheduled to meet with his transition advisers on Sunday.
Americans are living through an unprecedented holiday season amid a pandemic that has killed nearly 330,000 people in the United States, with a daily death toll now repeatedly well over 3,000 people, the highest since the pandemic began.
Many economists agree the bill's aid is too low but say the immediate support is still urgently needed.
A source familiar with the situation said Mr Trump's objection to the bill caught many White House officials by surprise. His criticism of the bill in tweets dashed hopes that he would sign the bill over the weekend.
Mr Trump spent much of Thursday and Christmas Day golfing at his club in West Palm Beach, Florida. The bill has been sent to Mar-a-Lago, his Florida residence, where Mr Trump spent Saturday with members of his family, including senior advisers Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, and daughter Ivanka Trump.
According to his daily schedule, Mr Trump was involved in "many meetings and calls", although the White House did not provide details. He had no events scheduled for Sunday.
The president also found time to reiterate in several tweets his baseless claims of election fraud and accuse his fellow Republicans of abandoning him in his bid to overturn the election result, already shot down multiple times by US courts. He has yet to acknowledge Mr Biden's Nov 3 victory.
"Time for Republican Senators to step up and fight for the Presidency," he tweeted on Saturday evening.
Mr Trump appeared to be in an isolated position on the aid bill as well, with few Republican lawmakers voicing support for his position. The White House had no updates as to whether Mr Trump would sign the bill by Monday, an official said.
Representative French Hill of Arkansas, a Republican who sits on the House Financial Services Committee, told Fox on Saturday he hoped Mr Trump would sign the bill at once because it would provide immediate relief to Americans.
"I wish he had made that pitch for US$2,000 as vociferously over the last three weeks as after the bill was passed. It might have given us more leverage to get a slightly higher payment," Mr Hill said. At this point, he added, "It's going to be extraordinarily hard to get that payment through the Senate and the House."
The US Congress, which normally is adjourned the last week of December, is preparing to return to work. The Democratic-controlled House plans to vote on legislation providing one-time US$2,000 checks to individuals.
Mr Trump last week vetoed a US$740 billion bill authorising the nation's defence programmes. On Monday, the House is scheduled to vote on overriding Mr Trump's veto. If the House vote succeeds, the Senate could hold its vote as early as Tuesday. Both chambers passed the defence spending bill with margins well over the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.