Millions lose benefits as Trump refuses to sign Covid relief package

Millions of Americans battling the financial hardships of the coronavirus pandemic lost their unemployment benefits on Sunday as Donald Trump continued to refuse to sign a relief package agreed in Congress and headed instead to the golf course.

The president’s belligerence over the bipartisan Covid relief and spending bill, that would have extended the benefits and given direct cash payments to most American families, drew the ire of senior Republicans, who accused Trump of inflicting more misery on citizens.

“He should have weighed in eight months ago,” Larry Hogan, the governor of Maryland, said on CNN’s State of the Union in response to Trump’s claim that he would only sign if the relief package included $2,000 in direct payments instead of the $600 agreed.

“The paycheck protection plan ran out in July. Tomorrow, unemployment benefits run out. So sign the bill, get it done. And then, if the president wants to push for more, let’s get that done too.”

In a later appearance on ABC’s This Week, Hogan asserted: “Millions of Americans are going to suffer.”

Trump, who is spending the Christmas and New Year holiday at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, raised objections to the $900bn relief bill only after it was passed by Congress last week, having been negotiated by his own treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin.

The bill has lain unsigned on his desk since Christmas Day as the president, who was mostly silent through weeks of intense negotiations, spent the weekend at the Trump International Golf Course in West Palm Beach.

In a tweet criticizing the bill, Trump claimed, without clarification, that it was stuffed with “billions of dollars in pork”.

Meanwhile Joe Biden, who won November’s presidential election and who will be sworn in as Trump’s successor on 20 January, accused him of an “abdication of responsibility” in a statement on Saturday.

Democrats in the House of Representatives will try again on Monday to break the impasse by voting to increase the amount of the direct payments, a move thwarted once already by House Republicans on Christmas Eve.

“On Monday we will hold a recorded vote on our stand-alone bill to increase economic impact payments to $2,000,” Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, said in a statement after the first attempt failed.

“To vote against this bill is to deny the financial hardship that families face and to deny them the relief they need.”

As well as denying help to long suffering Americans, Trump’s refusal to sign the package also holds up a connected $1.4tn funding bill, which could result in a US government shutdown as early as Tuesday, in the midst of a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 332,000 in the US.

Financial experts say the burden on American families will worsen. Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, has calculated that 11 million people will lose aid immediately from the expiration of two unemployment programs, and millions more will exhaust other unemployment benefits within weeks.

Andrew Stettner, an unemployment insurance expert and senior fellow at the Century Foundation think tank, said the number may be closer to 14 million because joblessness has spiked since late November.

“All these folks and their families will suffer if Trump doesn’t sign the damn bill,” Heidi Shierholz, director of policy at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, said in a tweet.

About 9.5 million people have been relying on the pandemic unemployment assistance program that expired Sunday. That program made unemployment insurance available to freelancers, gig workers and others who were normally not eligible.

Even if Trump relents, the expiration of the programs will cause delays in processing retrospective payments, adding to the financial burden for many.

Hogan, on ABC’s This Week, predicted that more Republicans were willing to stand up to Trump over the relief bill, aware that the end of his administration and Biden’s inauguration was only 24 days away.

“I think more and more are, and will,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot different after 20 January when he’s not in the position to exert such influence as he does now.”

The relief bill wrangles come as the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen in the US, with medical experts joining Biden in predicting that the darkest days lay ahead.

“We very well might see a post-seasonal, in the sense of Christmas, New Year, surge,” Dr Anthony Fauci, the US head of infectious diseases, told CNN on Sunday.

“When you’re dealing with a baseline of 200,000 new cases a day and about 2,000 deaths per day, with the hospitalizations over 120,000, we’re really at a very critical point. You see people at airports crowded in lines, trying to stay physically separated, but it’s so difficult to do that.

“And that generally is followed, when people get to the destination they want to be, that you’re going to have mixing of household people at a dinner or at a social function. As much as we advise against it, nonetheless it happens.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report