Donald Trump went to his golf club in West Palm Beach, Florida on Thursday, after claiming to be “working tirelessly for the American people” with a schedule that included “many meetings and calls”. Back in Washington, a Democratic proposal to increase direct payments to Americans under the Covid relief bill, from $600 to $2,000, was blocked.
The increase was Trump’s own demand in a surprise video address on Tuesday night but it was shot down by Republicans who opposed greater spending throughout stimulus talks.
Should the relief bill fail, millions of Americans will be without desperately needed relief at least until President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats would try again on Monday.
“To vote against this bill is to deny the financial hardship that families face,” she said, “and to deny them the relief they need.”
The White House did not immediately confirm if Trump was playing golf. Either way, official guidance to reporters about his “tireless” schedule contrasted with recent examples notably light on commitments, which have left Trump free to make baseless claims of electoral fraud and meet with conspiracy theorists and cronies about attempts to subvert the constitution and stay in power.
From Florida, on Wednesday night, the president issued the latest batch of pardons and acts of clemency for political allies.
Before Trump intervened, the Covid relief bill was agreed at $900bn and tied to huge spending legislation to keep the government open until September next year. The relief package was set to be the second-biggest in US history, after the $2.3tn Cares Act at the beginning of the pandemic.
“Just when you think you have seen it all,” Pelosi wrote to colleagues about Trump’s gambit. “The entire country knows that it is urgent for the president to sign this bill, both to provide the coronavirus relief and to keep government open.”
Pelosi offered the president’s proposal for increased payments on Thursday under a procedure that allowed just one lawmaker to object and in a so-called pro forma session, with few lawmakers in attendance. It duly failed.
Trump has not expressly threatened to veto the Covid package but on Wednesday he did veto the annual National Defense Authorization Act, worth $740bn, over objections to renaming military bases honouring Confederate leaders, to telecoms provisions and more.
Congress has not failed to pass the defence bill in 60 years. The House will return on Monday and the Senate on Tuesday, to override Trump’s veto.
The president’s extraordinary behaviour has presented his party with a painful political test, not least for Georgia senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, fighting to retain their seats in 5 January runoffs that will decide control of the Senate.
Senior Republicans were mostly silent after Trump’s intervention on Covid relief, neither Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell nor Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, speaking publicly. On a conference call, House Republicans complained that Trump had thrown them under the bus, one told the Associated Press. Most had voted for the package and urged leaders to use the TV to explain its benefits, the person said.
McCarthy sent a letter to colleagues suggesting Republicans would offer their own proposal, picking up on Trump’s complaints about foreign aid to “re-examine how our tax dollars are spent overseas”. Democrats took advantage of Republican disarray. Jon Ossoff, Perdue’s opponent, tweeted simply: “$2,000 checks now.”
The relief package represents a hard-fought compromise, a 5,000-page bill that includes $1.4tn to fund government through September 2021. The relief bill would establish a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit, along with new subsidies for businesses, schools, healthcare providers and renters facing eviction.
Even though treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin represented the White House in talks, Trump railed against provisions in the broader funding package, including foreign aid included each year, and called the bill a “disgrace”. He did not specifically vow to use his veto power, and there may be enough support in Congress to override him if he does. The Senate cleared the relief package by 92-6, the House by 359-53.
The bill is expected to be sent for Trump’s signature on Thursday or Friday, a congressional aide told the AP. Trump could also allow it to expire with a “pocket veto” at the end of the year.
The consequences of failure would be severe. It would mean no aid to struggling Americans and small businesses, and no additional resources to help with vaccine distribution in a pandemic in which nearly 19 million have been infected and almost 326,000 have died.
Furthermore, because lawmakers linked pandemic relief to funding, the government would shut down on 29 December. A resolution could therefore be forced on Monday, when a stopgap funding bill expires. Democrats are reportedly considering another stopgap to keep government running until Biden is sworn in.
Biden insisted to newspaper columnists on Wednesday that “there are enough Republicans prepared to meet him in the middle that he can get things done in an evenly divided Congress”. He applauded lawmakers and said the relief package “provides vital relief at a critical time”. He also said more would be needed.
Arriving at Mar-a-Lago, Trump was greeted by hundreds of supporters. Few wore masks or socially distanced to mitigate Covid transmission as they waved flags and signs and chanted “Four more years!”
One small boy had a sign that said “We’re going to miss you”. But there were a few Trump opponents too. One held a sign that said: “Go Away.”