Trump’s pandemic relief flip-flop will hurt millions however it ends

A little coal for your stocking.
A little coal for your stocking.
Image: Reuters/Jorge Silva
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President Donald Trump’s sudden demand for last-minute changes to plans for pandemic relief and government spending in 2021 has thrown Washington into chaos, but one thing is clear: Millions of Americans will face additional hardship because of it.

Whether or not any changes are made, the delay means that more than 11 million Americans who are behind on their rent will be vulnerable to eviction as a national moratorium expires without new aid. Meanwhile, 12 million unemployed Americans will lose jobless aid on Saturday, and even if its resumption is eventually approved, it will take states weeks or more to actually distribute payments. And American households hoping for hundreds or thousands of dollars in relief payments will still be waiting.

If the relief bill dies thanks to Trump’s tantrum, one likely result is a new effort after president Biden is inaugurated, with Republicans likely to be far less cooperative after special elections in Georgia on Jan 5. decide which party controls the Senate.

The last-minute package put together by lawmakers includes nearly $900 billion for pandemic relief, including help for renters, expanded unemployment insurance, $600 checks to households, and emergency funding for small businesses. It also includes the $1.4 trillion bill to fund government operations for the rest of the 2021 fiscal year. If not enacted, the government could shut down, a costly process that, notably, would slow vaccine distribution amidst a pandemic.

On Tuesday, Trump demanded that the payments to households be increased to $2,000, saying that otherwise the next president would have to deliver a relief package. He also vetoed a separate bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, that would have raised the salaries of servicemembers, because it would rename military bases that honor Confederate generals, and did not include any unrelated provision to dramatically change how internet platforms are regulated.

How did it come to this? Debate over a second pandemic relief bill began almost as soon as the CARES Act was passed in April, and the Democratic House of Representatives passed an expansive version in October. Republicans declined to engage with the negotiations, citing concerns about businesses facing lawsuits for not protecting workers from the coronavirus, among other objections, but largely to wait until the results of November’s elections.

After Trump’s defeat, the spike in infections and resultant economic stumbles increased pressure to distribute more relief, and Democratic leaders agreed to a much smaller bipartisan deal proposed Republican senators. Ultimately, the deal sacrificed the $1,200 checks hoped for by Democrats (or even the $2,000 checks proposed by vice president-elect Kamala Harris) to maintain expanded payments to workers who lost jobs during the pandemic.

Even so, this compromise came too late to guarantee uninterrupted unemployment payments, given the lag involved with payments delivered through each state government. Now, that gap will only grow.

During the weeks of contentious negotiations over this relief bill, president Trump was mainly focused on his false claims of election fraud and did not weigh in on the bill. His new demand for more generous stimulus can be seen as laying the groundwork for another pseudo-populist presidential run in 2024, or simply an attempt to damage Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell ahead of special elections in Georgia after McConnell acknowledged Trump’s defeat.

Today, Republicans in the House shot down a Democratic attempt to add the $2,000 stimulus checks to the relief bill. Now, we will wait to see if Trump actually vetoes the package—and if lawmakers can overturn that veto—or if he allows it to expire through a “pocket veto” by not signing it until the end of the year.