Congress scrambles to avert shutdown after Trump’s stimulus demands

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The scramble on Capitol Hill — which has largely emptied out for the holidays — includes a last-minute bid by House Democrats to roughly triple the size of Americans’ stimulus checks to meet Trump’s demands. House Republicans on Thursday morning blocked the effort, setting up a dramatic showdown in Congress next week that could put the president at odds with members of his own party.

Congress on Thursday afternoon sent the massive bill to Mar-a-Lago, where it awaits Trump’s signature.

The uncertainty surrounding the package is the latest chapter of chaos in the Trump presidency, which has seen multiple shutdowns and deals scuttled at the last minute. The president’s eleventh-hour demands took lawmakers and senior aides by surprise, particularly since Trump left nearly all of the negotiations to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who made no push for the $2,000 stimulus checks that the president is now seeking.

Both parties are now stranded with a Trump-driven crisis on Christmas Eve — uncertain how to deliver quick relief to millions of Americans suffering in the pandemic-battered economy, let alone keep the government funded.

“Perhaps the only mistake was believing the president and Secretary Mnuchin when we were told that the bill — when it’s passed — would be signed by the president,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Thursday when asked how they arrived at this point.

Top officials, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Mnuchin, are privately discussing contingency plans such as a stopgap spending bill if Trump does formally veto the measure by Monday, when funding is set to lapse. But it’s not clear how long that stopgap measure would last — or whether Trump would sign it, if it makes none of the changes he’s demanded, such as cuts to foreign aid, according to people familiar with the discussions.

“This is Christmas Eve,” Hoyer said. “Surely, the president of the United States, whether he’s in Mar-a-Lago or anywhere else, ought to empathize with the pain and suffering and apprehension and deep angst that the American people are feeling.”

Back at the White House, most aides still don’t seem to know whether the president plans to actually veto the legislation. In recent weeks, the president has been far more focused on a futile effort to overturn the Nov. 3 election than he has on the pandemic and has lashed out at top GOP leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).

“This is Trump being Trump,” said a former senior administration official who remains close to the White House. “He always keeps you guessing. It’s Trump — who knows what he will do?”

The White House did not respond to repeated questions about the legislation.

Trump, meanwhile, spent Thursday at his South Florida Mar-a-Lago resort, keeping Americans in a state of uncertainty for a second day in a row. Just after 10 a.m., Trump hit the golf course. He is expected to stay in Florida until the new year.

A Republican close to the White House said the president is unlikely to actually veto the bill, noting that he didn’t use the word “veto” as he has in the past. And it wouldn’t be the first time Trump has threatened to veto legislation before signing it: In 2018, Trump approved a $1.3 trillion spending bill, despite saying he was “unhappy” with it.

“He’s turning a fairly decent four years with a decent record into an utter disaster,” said a former staffer. “Most selfish thing I’ve ever seen.”

But Democrats fear that Trump will formally reject the measure, forcing them to move quickly on a short-term funding measure that can carry Congress into the early days of Joe Biden’s presidency.

Earlier this week, Trump said the $600 direct checks should be increased to $2,000 and described the package’s spending levels as “wasteful,” despite having previously approved and requested them.

Democrats — who have supported bigger checks — were quick to force congressional Republicans to block Trump’s request.

House Democrats went to the floor on Thursday with a proposal to increase the size of direct payments to $2,000, instead of the $600 that’s in the bill. But Republicans rejected the move, and instead offered their own proposal to shrink foreign aid in the broader spending bill. Democrats rejected it.

“Today, on Christmas Eve morning, House Republicans cruelly deprived the American people of the $2,000 that the President agreed to support,” Pelosi said in a statement. “If the President is serious about the $2,000 direct payments, he must call on House Republicans to end their obstruction.”

The House plans to return Monday, where lawmakers will take a full vote on whether to substitute the $2,000 checks in the bill, as Trump has demanded. Democrats could also take up a stopgap spending bill Monday.

But even if the $2,000 check measure clears the House, it’s unlikely the Senate would take it up. Blunt predicted Thursday that the proposal wouldn’t even clear the 60 votes needed to pass the chamber.

Speaking after the Democrats’ failed efforts on the floor, an emotional Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), railed against the president for blocking more relief, arguing that Trump “doesn’t give a damn about people.”

“He sowed more fear. He threw kerosene on a fire,” Dingell said.