Covid-19 Aid Bill Remains Uncertain as Trump Calls for Larger Payments

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President Trump, seen here with first lady Melania Trump on Wednesday, is calling on lawmakers to increase direct coronavirus-relief payments to $2,000.

Photo: saul loeb/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

WASHINGTON—Some unemployment programs expired Saturday night, as President Trump’s demand for larger direct payments to Americans left a sweeping legislative package of pandemic aid for businesses and families and funding for the government in limbo.

Millions of people were seeing their benefits suspended because of the delay and the federal government faced a possible shutdown on Tuesday.

Congress is scheduled to return early this week, although it is unclear whether lawmakers can reach a compromise that would address the president’s objections. The measure passed with enough votes to override a potential presidential veto, but it was unclear whether Mr. Trump’s opposition would persuade any Republicans to reconsider.

On Saturday, Mr. Trump renewed his criticism of the legislation, calling on lawmakers to increase the direct coronavirus-relief payments to $2,000 for individuals from $600 per adult and per child, the current level in the bipartisan bill. He also targeted the $1.4 trillion government funding bill that was attached to the legislation, casting it as reckless spending at a time when federal resources should be focused on the economic recovery in the U.S.

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“I simply want to get our great people $2000, rather than the measly $600 that is now in the bill. Also, stop the billions of dollars in ‘pork,’” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter.

The president hasn’t said whether he intends to veto the legislation. Earlier this week, a copy of the bill was flown to Mar-a-Lago, the private Florida club where Mr. Trump is spending the holidays, in case he decides to sign it.

President-elect Joe Biden criticized Mr. Trump for not signing the legislation. “It is the day after Christmas, and millions of families don’t know if they’ll be able to make ends meet because of President Donald Trump’s refusal to sign an economic relief bill approved by Congress with an overwhelming and bipartisan majority,” Mr. Biden said on Saturday. “This abdication of responsibility has devastating consequences.”

The 5,593-page year-end package, which passed both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support, was the product of monthslong negotiations on Capitol Hill. White House officials signaled to senior congressional leaders that Mr. Trump would sign off on the bill, but the president publicly objected this week once it was approved by the House and the Senate, frustrating lawmakers and raising the prospect of a government shutdown.

Senior Republicans have said they don’t think there is enough support in the GOP to increase the direct payments to the level Mr. Trump is demanding. On Thursday, House Republicans blocked Democrats’ effort to pass legislation approving the $2,000 stimulus checks by unanimous consent.

Because the bill wasn’t signed in time, two pandemic-related unemployment programs ended on Saturday. The first provided unemployment benefits for gig and contract workers and others who don’t generally qualify for jobless aid. The second provided up to 13 weeks of additional payments to individuals who exhausted other programs that pay benefits, such as regular state unemployment benefits. In early December, roughly 14 million people were receiving benefits through those pandemic-relief programs, representing nearly three-quarters of those currently receiving jobless benefits.

A Brookings Institution report issued Dec. 3 found approximately 10 million workers would lose unemployment compensation on Dec. 26. Nearly four million more workers would be in danger of losing their benefits within weeks of that date, largely because they have been unemployed so long they will have exhausted eligibility in other programs.

The bill passed by Congress would extend the maximum number of weeks a person can claim unemployment benefits to 50 weeks. It would provide an additional $100-a-week subsidy for workers who have both wage and self-employment income but whose basic unemployment benefits don’t take into account their self-employment income. It would also give unemployed Americans a supplemental benefit of up to $300 a week, a cut from the previous $600 a week that was approved in April, and ended in the summer.

The bill would extend until the end of January 2021 the federal eviction prohibition and provide $25 billion of assistance to tenants in arrears on their rent. It also contains billions of dollars to help airlines, small businesses, entertainment venues and farms, as well as money to help Americans get vaccinated from the virus.

Government funding will run out at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. Lawmakers are set to return to Washington early this week to override Mr. Trump’s veto of defense-policy legislation. The House will also vote on a bill to increase the amount of checks in the aid bill to $2,000. The bill will likely pass the House, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) hasn’t said whether it will get a vote in the Senate, where it would face GOP opposition.

Some of Mr. Trump’s allies have encouraged lawmakers to use their time in Washington this week to reach a compromise. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said that he spent time with Mr. Trump on Friday and that he believes the president is “more determined than ever” to increase direct payments to $2,000 and roll back Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Mr. Trump has argued that social-media giants like Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. are using that section of the law to suppress conservative voices on their platforms.

“Both are reasonable demands, and I hope Congress is listening. The biggest winner would be the American people,” Mr. Graham wrote on Twitter on Friday of the president’s two priorities.

Mr. Trump hasn’t detailed specific objections to the spending portions of the year-end package, but allies said he was frustrated with funding for foreign allies and international programs that is included in the bill. He has raised similar concerns with past spending legislation. Funding for foreign programs is common in such appropriations bills and supported by lawmakers from both parties.

Should Mr. Trump decide not to sign the bill before the Tuesday deadline, the government would shut down. Nonessential government employees across the country wouldn’t come into work, and if the gridlock continued, they would miss paychecks. Some lawmakers have called for Congress to pass a short-term spending bill to avoid that, though it is unclear what the president would support.

Mr. Trump arrived at Mar-a-Lago on Wednesday night, and has since visited his golf club in West Palm Beach, Fla., including on Christmas. He hasn’t had any public events in recent days.

The coronavirus pandemic continued to rage in the U.S., with experts raising concerns about increasing hospitalizations in many parts of the country. More than 330,000 people have died in the U.S. as a result of the virus, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Write to Andrew Restuccia at Andrew.Restuccia@wsj.com and Natalie Andrews at Natalie.Andrews@wsj.com

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