Trump relents, signs COVID relief, averts federal shutdown
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — President Donald Trump has signed a $900 billion pandemic relief package, ending days of drama over his refusal to accept the bipartisan deal that will deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and avert a federal government shutdown.
The deal also provides $1.4 trillion to fund government agencies through September and contains other end-of-session priorities such as an increase in food stamp benefits.
The signing Sunday, at his private club in Florida came as he faced escalating criticism over his eleventh-hour demands for larger, $2,000 relief checks and scaled-back spending even though the bill had already passed the House and Senate by wide margins. The bill was passed with what lawmakers had thought was Trump's blessing, and after months of negotiations with his administration.
His foot-dragging resulted in a lapse in unemployment benefits for millions and threatened a government shutdown in the midst of a pandemic. But signing the bill into law prevents another crisis of Trump's own creation and ends a standoff with his own party during the final days of his administration.
It was unclear what, if anything, Trump accomplished with his delay, beyond angering all sides and empowering Democrats to continue their push for higher relief checks, which his own party opposes.
In his statement, Trump repeated his frustrations with the COVID-19 relief bill for providing only $600 checks to most Americans instead of the $2,000 that his fellow Republicans already rejected. He also complained about what he considered unnecessary spending by the government at large.
"I will sign the Omnibus and Covid package with a strong message that makes clear to Congress that wasteful items need to be removed," Trump said in the statement.
While the president insisted he would send Congress "a redlined version" with items to be removed under the rescission process, those are merely suggestions to Congress. The bill, as signed, would not necessarily be changed.
Democrats, who have the majority in the House, immediately vowed to prevent any cuts. Democrats "will reject any rescissions" submitted by the president, said Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, chair of the Appropriations Committee.
Lawmakers now have breathing room to continue debating whether the relief checks should be as large as the president has demanded. The Democratic-led House supports the larger checks and is set to vote on the issue Monday, but it's expected to be ignored by the Republican-held Senate, where spending faces opposition. 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." "Someone's got to show me how we're going to pay for it. How far before we all go into debilitating insolvency and bankruptcy?"
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."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the signing "welcome news for the fourteen million Americans who just lost the lifeline of unemployment benefits on Christmas weekend, and for the millions more struggling to stay afloat during this historic pandemic and economic crisis."
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.
Congress will push ahead Monday, with the House expected to vote to override Trump's veto of an annual Defense bill, confronting the president on another big issue in the final days of the session. The Senate is expected to follow on Tuesday.
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.
"What the president is doing right now is unbelievably cruel," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said of Trump's delaying tactic before the president signed the law. "So many people are hurting. ... It is really insane and this president has got to finally ... do the right thing for the American people and stop worrying about his ego."
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."
Toomey added: "So I think the best thing to do, as I said, sign this and then make the case for subsequent legislation."
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."
Washington had been reeling since Trump turned on the deal. Fingers pointed at administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, as lawmakers tried to understand whether they were misled about Trump's position.
"Now to be put in a lurch, after the president's own person negotiated something that the president doesn't want, it's just — it's surprising," Kinzinger said.
Mascaro and Taylor reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Alexandra Olson in New York contributed to this report.