Trump urges Congress to amend ‘wasteful’ coronavirus aid bill

US President Trump has urged Congress to amend a $900bn (£670bn) coronavirus relief bill to more than triple its stimulus payments to Americans.

In a video message posted on Twitter, he said the package “really is a disgrace”, full of “wasteful” items.

“It’s called the Covid relief bill, but it has almost nothing to do with Covid,” he said.

The $900bn bill includes one-off $600 payments to most Americans, but Mr Trump said the figure should be $2,000.

The Republican president, who leaves office on 20 January, had been expected to sign the sprawling legislation into law following its passage through Congress on Monday night.

What did Trump say?

But in Tuesday night’s message from the White House, Mr Trump baulked at spending in the bill on other countries, arguing that this money should go to struggling Americans.

He said: “This bill contains $85.5m for assistance to Cambodia, $134m to Burma, $1.3bn for Egypt and the Egyptian military, which will go out and buy almost exclusively Russian military equipment, $25m for democracy and gender programmes in Pakistan, $505m to Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.”

The president questioned why the Kennedy Center, a performing arts complex in Washington DC, was set to receive $40m when it is not open, and more than $1bn has been allocated to museums and galleries in the capital.

Mr Trump concluded: “Congress found plenty of money for foreign countries, lobbyists and special interests, while sending the bare minimum to the American people who need it. It wasn’t their fault. It was China’s fault.

“I am asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000 or $4,000 for a couple. 

“I’m also asking Congress to immediately get rid of the wasteful and unnecessary items from this legislation and to send me a suitable bill, or else the next administration will have to deliver a Covid relief package.”

Mr Trump’s statement stunned Capitol Hill, plunging the long-awaited aid bill into turmoil.

He has not yet received the bill. But if the president vetoes or refuses to sign it by midnight next Monday, the US government could shut down because the package was attached to a $1.4tn spending measure to fund federal agencies for the next nine months.

What’s in the aid bill?

Republicans and Democrats have been negotiating a coronavirus stimulus rescue since July. Mr Trump largely stayed out of the talks.

On Monday afternoon, congressional leaders unveiled a 5,593-page package and voted on it several hours later.

Several lawmakers protested that they had not been given an opportunity to read the contents.

Nevertheless the bill sailed through the House of Representatives by 359-53 and the Senate by 92-6.

The relief package contains a number of provisions that will help tens of millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet in the pandemic-battered economy.

The one-off payments of $600 are half the sum provided by the last major coronavirus aid bill in March, which contained $2.4tn in economic relief.

Monday’s package extends federal jobless benefits of up to $300 per week for 11 weeks, although this again is half the amount provided by the previous bill.

The package contains $25bn in rental aid and extends an eviction moratorium that was due to expire at the end of this month, a lifeline for millions of Americans.

The bill also bans surprise medical billing – where hospital patients get slapped with often exorbitant stealth fees because they were treated by a doctor who was not covered by their health insurer.

But after poring over the mammoth legislation, journalists and critics have highlighted a string of alleged giveaways for lobbyists.

The Washington Post, for example, reports that the package contains $110bn in tax breaks for sectors such as the liquor industry and motorsports entertainment.

How have Democratic leaders reacted?

On Tuesday, President-elect Joseph Biden said the coronavirus bill was merely a “down payment” and vowed he would press lawmakers to pass another stimulus bill after he enters office next month.

“Congress did its job this week,” the Democrat said, speaking from his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, “and I can and I must ask them to do it again next year.”

The most powerful congressional Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, usually a fierce antagonist of the president, said she agreed with Mr Trump’s call for $2,000 one-off stimulus payments for every American.

“Let’s do it!” she tweeted, pledging that her party would bring the proposal to the floor this week. 

However, such a plan would need to be passed by the Republican-controlled Senate, where it may well face resistance.

The Democratic minority leader of the Senate, Chuck Schumer, tweeted: “Trump needs to sign the bill to help people and keep the government open and we’re glad to pass more aid Americans need”.

Covid: US Congress passes long-awaited deal for coronavirus aid

The US Congress has passed a long-awaited $900bn (£660bn) package of coronavirus pandemic aid after months of political wrangling.

Senators approved the bill late on Monday, hours after it was passed by the House of Representatives.

The aid includes direct payments for many Americans and support for businesses and unemployment programmes.

The money is to accompany a bigger, $1.4tn spending bill to fund government operations over the next nine months.

President Donald Trump is expected to sign the package into law quickly.

President-elect Joe Biden welcomed the relief package but said Congress needed to get to work to support his Covid-19 relief plan in the new year View original tweet on Twitter

Grey lines

In the House, the bill passed by a vote of 359 to 53 and in the Senate it passed by 92-6.

Many Covid-19 relief programmes were set to expire at the end of the month and about 12 million Americans were at risk of losing access to unemployment benefits.

But some lawmakers said they felt blind-sided by being asked to vote on a mammoth bill without even having a chance to read it.

At nearly 5,600 pages, the legislation was described by the Associated Press news agency as “the longest bill in memory and probably ever”.

What is in the package?

The stimulus includes one-off $600 payments to most Americans, and will boost unemployment payments by $300 per week, extending expiration dates for the jobless programmes until the spring. 

It also contains more than $300bn in support for businesses, and money for vaccine distribution, schools and tenants facing eviction.

The package includes an extension of an eviction moratorium that was due to expire at the end of this month, leaving tens of millions of Americans at risk of being thrown out of their homes. It contains $25bn in rental aid.

The bill also has a provision to end surprise medical billing – where hospital patients get slapped with fees because they were treated by a doctor who was not covered by their health insurer. President Trump has championed calls to end these stealth fees, which are one of the most unpopular pitfalls of the US healthcare system.

The deal was announced on Sunday by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican. Speaking on Monday ahead of the vote, he said: “None of us think this legislation is perfect, but a big bipartisan majority of us recognise the incredible amount of good it will do when we send it to the president’s desk. The American people have waited long enough.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats, said the package delivered “urgently needed funds to save the lives and livelihoods of the American people as the virus accelerates”.

Who will get the $600 cheques?

Lawmakers said the bill would send $600 per adult or child for individuals earning up to $75,000 or married couples earning up to $150,000, with families earning more receiving less. 

The first cheques could arrive as soon as next week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.

The payment is half the amount that Congress approved for direct payments during the first round of pandemic relief last spring. 

What is not in the bill?

The bill does not include substantial aid to local governments, which had been a top priority for many Democrats. In exchange, Republicans agreed to accept a deal without legal protections for businesses from Covid-related lawsuits.

Mr Schumer said the package would “establish a floor, not a ceiling, for coronavirus relief in 2021”, and that Democrats would push for more aid after President-elect Joe Biden took office on 20 January. 

Congress had been expected to pass the bill by Friday, but negotiations continued through the weekend.

The delays led to concerns over whether the government would shut down without a spending bill. Washington has been operating on temporary funding since October, the start of the federal government’s financial year.

How are Americans reacting?

Economic analysts welcomed the deal, but have warned that it is probably too small and arrives too late to avert a slowdown in the recovery.

They have also expressed concerns that money devoted to the stimulus cheques – which some families are likely to save – takes away from other, more targeted programmes that might provide a more effective boost to the economy.

“Any Covid relief bill is better than no Covid relief bill, but the measures set to be passed by Congress… do not represent the most efficient use of the $900bn total cost,” wrote Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics.

However, on social media, many said the cheque should have been larger, saying $600 per person wasn’t large enough to help meaningfully.

“$600 will hopefully save some lives but we all know it’s just barely scraping by,” wrote one social media user in California. View original tweet on Twitter

“I’m so excited about the $600 stimulus checks I can’t even decide if I’m going to pay rent for the right side of my bedroom or the left!!!” Jack in New York joked. View original tweet on Twitter

“It’s infuriating to see what every other major country around the world had done for their citizens and our elected officials give us scraps,” another user commented.

Some also noted that many pandemic relief schemes have been plagued by fraud or delays in spending the money.

What about previous aid?

In March the US approved more than $2.4tn in economic relief, including one-off $1,200 stimulus payments, funds for businesses and money to boost weekly unemployment payments by $600.

The package was credited with cushioning the economic hit of the pandemic, which cast more than 20 million Americans out of work this spring and drove the unemployment rate up to 14.7% in April.

The US has regained about half of the jobs lost, but economists and businesses have been pushing Congress to approve further economic relief, as programmes expired and money ran out, prompting recovery to slow.

Nearly eight million more Americans are now living in poverty. This year has seen the biggest single year increase since poverty tracking began 60 years ago.

Covid: US reaches long awaited deal for coronavirus aid

After months of wrangling, US lawmakers have agreed to a roughly $900bn package of pandemic aid, including money for businesses and unemployment programmes.

The money is set to accompany a bigger $1.4tn spending bill to fund government operations over the next nine months. 

It comes as many Covid-19 economic relief programmes were set to expire at the end of the month.

Some 12 million Americans were at risk of losing access to unemployment benefits.

Unemployment numbers released on Thursday showed 885,000 people applied for jobless benefits in the last week, the highest in a week since September.

The deal on Sunday, announced by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, still needs to be formally voted on. “We can finally report what our nation has needed to hear for a very long time: More help is on the way,” he said.

Top Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer said the package “delivers urgently needed funds to save the lives and livelihoods of the American people as the virus accelerates”.

The new package will include $600 direct stimulus payments to most Americans, and boost unemployment payments by $300 per week. It is also set to include more than $300bn in support for businesses, and money for vaccine distribution.

Congress was expected to pass the bill by Friday, but negotiations continued through the weekend. 

The delays led to concerns over whether the government would shutdown without a spending bill. Washington has been operating on temporary funding since October, the start of the federal government’s financial year.

What about previous aid?

The US in March approved more than $2.4tn in economic relief, including $1,200 stimulus cheques, funds for businesses and money to boost weekly unemployment payments by $600.

The package was credited with cushioning the economic hit of the pandemic, which cast more than 20 million Americans out of work this spring and drove the unemployment rate up to 14.7% in April.

The US has regained about half of the jobs lost, but economists and businesses have been pushing Congress to approve further economic relief, as programmes expired and money ran out, prompting recovery to slow.

A survey by the Chamber of Commerce released on Tuesday found three quarters of small businesses said they needed government help to survive.

In the last five months, the US poverty rate has spiked, reaching 11.7% last month – an increase of 2.4 percentage points since June, according to research from the University of Chicago and University of Notre Dame. 

Nearly eight million more Americans are now living in poverty. This year has seen the biggest single year increase since poverty tracking began 60 years ago.

Many low-income Americans have seen their bank balances drop steadily in the months since April, when the first government stimulus checks arrived. Without further assistance, lower-income families’ checking account balances will drop faster than higher-income households, a report by the JPMorgan Chase Institute found.