Like a coin flip that never lands, Americaâ€™s double-headed presidency is queasily suspended in midair as President Trump threatens to veto a bipartisan, Biden-blessed bill intended to speed relief to families, businesses and governments in time for the holidays.
The 11th-hour disruption was one of those entirely predictable surprises that have defined the Trump era. Over the last four years â€” especially on big-ticket budget deals (like the 2019 defense bill) â€” Mr. Trump has absented himself from negotiations and piped up only at the last possible second, often to little or no effect on priorities like funding his border wall.
In a speech posted late Tuesday on his Twitter account, Mr. Trump positioned himself as a guardian of the working class who had been quietly watching the congressional negotiations in horror as they crammed billions in wasteful spending into the bill, which he called â€œa disgrace.â€
He is now pushing for $2,000 payments for individuals, not the $600 stimulus checks included in the compromise, a position embraced by progressives and deplored by conservatives.
It is not clear how Mr. Trumpâ€™s proposal will be taken in Congress. Democrats planned to raise the amount of the direct payments on Thursday by unanimous consent, but whether it passes there or even comes up in the Senate is unclear. The stimulus bill passed both houses on Monday with a veto-proof majority.
Why is Mr. Trump doing this now? One reason: A no has always been more attractive than a yes for the disruptive Mr. Trump, whose 2016 presidential run was impelled by his dislike of President Barack Obama but turbocharged by his contempt for the Republican Party establishment.
The opposite holds for President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who ran in 2020 as a reassuring figure intent on restoring kindness and sanity to government. Mr. Biden offered tempered approval of the unloved $900 billion compromise deal on Tuesday, calling it a â€œdown paymentâ€ on another coronavirus relief package next year.
On the stimulus issue, Mr. Biden is actually far closer to Mr. Trump than Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, who has been wary of writing bigger checks. But Mr. Biden, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, when the deal seemed done, cast it as a hopeful harbinger of future agreements with Mr. McConnell, his frequent bargaining partner in the Obama years.
In that sense, Mr. Biden is coming in as president the way he left the vice presidency, with a smile of reassurance, while Mr. Trump is going out as he came in â€” with a defiant scowl.
How the current crisis, which comes at a moment of acute national crisis, plays out is hard to say. Mr. Trump is scheduled to leave this afternoon for his annual Christmas trip to Florida, though his plans could change.
But what struck many Republican aides most on Wednesday was Mr. Trumpâ€™s sudden embrace of a cause typically championed by the other party.
While Mr. Trump floated the idea of increasing the size of the checks in private last week, he did not push for the proposal on Twitter, did not weigh in personally with legislative leaders, and he did not instruct Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who represented him in the talks, to reject the compromise.
The Trump administration and Pfizer reached a deal to bolster the supply of the coronavirus vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech for the United States by 100 million doses by the end of July.
The new agreement means the companies will supply the United States with a total of 200 million doses, enough to vaccinate 100 million Americans. The additional shots will cost $1.95 billion, the companies said.
The agreement, announced Wednesday, would help the United States at least partly offset a looming vaccine shortage that could leave millions of adult Americans uncovered in the first half of 2021.
So far, only two pharmaceutical companies â€” Pfizer and Moderna â€” have won federal authorization for emergency distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, and most of what they are capable of producing for the next six months has already been allocated through contracts with the United States and other governments.
Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White Houseâ€™s coronavirus response coordinator, said in an interview on Tuesday with the media outlet Newsy that she planned to retire after concluding her role helping the federal government transition to the Biden administration.
â€œI will be helpful in any role people think I can be helpful in,â€ she said. â€œAnd then I will retire.â€
In recent weeks Dr. Birx, 64, indicated publicly and privately that she was open to serving in the Biden administration. It was unclear what prompted her to announce her plan to retire. In the interview with Newsy, she called her time at the White House â€œoverwhelmingâ€ and difficult on her family. She suggested that recent coverage of a trip she made over the Thanksgiving holiday had unduly dragged her family into the spotlight.
The Associated Press reported on Sunday that after Dr. Birx recommended limiting gatherings to the â€œimmediate household,â€ she traveled to a vacation home in Delaware over Thanksgiving weekend with three generations of her family, which included several households. Dr. Birx told The A.P. that she traveled not to celebrate Thanksgiving, but rather to winterize the property before a potential sale. She said that those on the trip were part of her immediate household but lived in two homes.
â€œI think what was done in the last week to my family â€” you know, they didnâ€™t choose this for me,â€ she said in her interview with Newsy. â€œTheyâ€™ve tried to be supportive.â€
Neither the White House nor Dr. Birx responded to requests for comment on Tuesday. Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said in a tweet on Tuesday that Mr. Trump â€œhas great respect for Dr. Birx and likes her very much.â€
â€œWe wish her well,â€ she wrote.
Dr. Birx arrived at the White House in late February as Vice President Mike Pence assumed control of the coronavirus task force, and quickly developed a niche as a numbers maven. She worked long hours overseeing a team of specialists gathering data on infections and hospitalizations, whose work she would organize into daily presentations for senior White House officials and the task force. She has also been the point of contact for state and local officials, and oversees the drafting of detailed reports offering guidance to the states.
In recent months, she has traveled around the country, appealing to Americans to wear masks and limit their contact with others, a message that clashed with the White Houseâ€™s relaxed approach to pandemic restrictions.
Her time in the West Wing, where she keeps an office, elicited broad criticism from public health experts. Senior administration officials said that she ingratiated herself with President Trump and Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, often presenting an optimistic picture of the pandemic. She also alienated officials at the C.D.C. with an aggressive campaign to overhaul the way the agency collects data on the spread of the coronavirus. And she clashed with officials on Operation Warp Speed, the administrationâ€™s vaccine development program, over the selection of vaccine candidates and the development of antibody treatments.
A colonel in the Army, she began her career in the early 1980s as an immunologist at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She spent time training as a fellow in Dr. Anthony Fauciâ€™s lab. The two remain close.
Before she arrived at the White House this year, she spent six years at the State Department, where she oversaw the Presidentâ€™s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, created in 2003 by President George W. Bush when antiretroviral drugs saving lives in developed countries were not available in other nations.
The $900 billion stimulus bill passed by Congress this week is meant to address the needs of millions of Americans who have weathered the effects of the coronavirus pandemic for months, even as many federal programs to provide aid ran thin or expired.
Among the most anticipated components of the legislation is the direct payment, with $600 going to individual adults with an adjusted gross income of up to $75,000 a year based on 2019 earnings. Heads of households who earn up to $112,500 and a couple (or someone whose spouse died in 2020) who make up to $150,000 a year would get twice that amount.
Eligible families with dependent children would receive an additional $600 per child.
In a change from the last round, payments will not be denied to citizens married to someone without a social security number, allowing some spouses of undocumented immigrants to claim the benefit this time around.
On Tuesday night, President Trump threatened to veto the bill because he said the payments were too low. He is advocating payments of $2,000. House Democrats planned to bring up an amendment to the bill on Thursday, an aide who was familiar with the proposal said. It is not clear how the House and Senate will act.
With as many as 12 million Americans facing the prospect of losing federal unemployment assistance on Dec. 26, Congress acted to extend multiple programs, albeit at less generous levels than in the spring.
The agreement would revive enhanced federal jobless benefits for 11 weeks, providing a lifeline for hard-hit workers until March 14. The new benefit, up to $300 per week, is half the amount provided by the CARES Act in the spring.
The legislation also extends Pandemic Unemployment Assistance â€” a program aimed at a broad set of freelancers and independent contractors â€” for the same period, providing an additional $100 per week.
Targeted aid for small businesses
The agreement sets aside $285 billion for additional loans to small businesses under the Paycheck Protection Program, renewing the program created under the CARES Act.
The latest version includes stricter terms that appear intended to correct some of the unpopular elements of the original program. It caps loans at $2 million and makes them available only to borrowers with fewer than 300 employees that experienced at least a 25 percent drop in sales from a year earlier in at least one quarter. The agreement also sets aside $12 billion specifically for minority-owned businesses. And publicly traded companies will be ineligible to apply this time around.
Funding for vaccines and nursing homes
The legislation sets aside nearly $70 billion for a range of public health measures, including $20 billion for the purchase of vaccines, $8 billion for vaccine distribution and an additional $20 billion to help states continue their test-and-trace programs.
The bill also allows a federal program that insures mortgages for nursing homes to dole out emergency loans aimed at helping hard-hit elder care centers.
Support for climate measures
In an unusual rebuke of the Trump administrationâ€™s climate policy, the deal includes new legislation to regulate hydrofluorocarbons, the powerful greenhouse gases common in air-conditioners and refrigerators.
It also allocates $35 billion to fund wind, solar and other clean energy projects.
A ban on surprise medical bills
The bill will make it illegal for hospitals to charge patients for services like emergency treatment by out-of-network doctors or transport in air ambulances, which patients often have no say about.
The compromise would protect tenants struggling with rent by extending a moratorium on evictions for another month, through Jan. 31. The Department of Housing and Urban Development separately issued a similar moratorium on Monday that protects homeowners against foreclosures on mortgages backed by the Federal Home Administration. It runs until Feb. 28.
The bill also provides $25 billion in rental assistance.
Expanding one of the most reliable channels of aid, the agreement increases monthly food stamp benefits â€” formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP â€” by 15 percent for six months, beginning on Jan. 1.
Funding for broadband infrastructure
The legislation includes $7 billion for expanding access to high-speed internet connections, nearly half of which will go toward helping cover the cost of monthly internet bills by providing up to $50 per month to low-income families.
The deal also sets aside $300 million for building out infrastructure in underserved rural areas and $1 billion in grants for tribal broadband programs.