WASHINGTON: The US government headed toward a chaotic last few days of the year as President Donald Trump's refusal to approve a US$2.3 trillion financial package caused millions of jobless Americans to lose benefits and threatened to shut down federal agencies due to lack of funding.
Trump, who leaves office on Jan 20 after losing November's election, came under pressure on Sunday from lawmakers on both sides to stop blocking the pandemic aid and government funding Bill which was approved by Congress last week.
The Republican president has demanded that Congress change the Bill to increase the size of stimulus checks for struggling Americans to US$2,000 from US$600.
Many economists agree that the financial aid in the Bill should be higher to get the economy moving again but say that immediate support for Americans hit by coronavirus lockdowns is still urgently needed.
Unemployment benefits being paid out to about 14 million people through pandemic programs lapsed on Saturday, but could be restarted until mid-March if Trump signs the Bill.
Adding to the uncertainty, the package includes US$1.4 trillion in spending to fund government agencies. If Trump does not sign the legislation, then a partial government shutdown will begin on Tuesday that would put millions of government workers' incomes at risk, unless Congress steps in with a stop-gap measure the president accepts.
Republican Senator Pat Toomey told "Fox News Sunday" that Trump should approve the Bill now, then push for more unemployment money later.
"I understand the president would like to send bigger checks to everybody. I think what he ought to do is sign this Bill and then make the case. Congress can pass another Bill," Toomey said.
"You don't get everything you want, even if you are the president of the United States," he said.
After months of wrangling, Republicans and Democrats agreed to the package last weekend, with the support of the White House.
Trump stunned Republicans and Democrats alike when he later said he was unhappy with the massive Bill, which provides US$892 billion in coronavirus financial relief, despite offering no objections to the terms of the deal before Congress voted it through on Monday.
Trump spent the Christmas holiday at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. On Sunday morning, he seemed in no rush to try to resolve the standoff with Congress as he spent several hours at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach.
He has also complained that the Bill gives too much money to special interests, cultural projects and foreign aid.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers who were involved in crafting the relief Bill urged Trump to sign it immediately. But, they added, if he is determined to veto it, he should do so quickly to "allow those in favour to act before it is too late."
"This act will show your support for the American people who are in need of emergency lifelines like food, shelter, unemployment benefits and small business relief during these challenging times," they said in a statement.
Senator Bernie Sanders said of the delay: "What the president is doing right now is unbelievably cruel."
"We are dealing with an unprecedented moment in American history. So many people are hurting," he told ABC News' "This Week" show. Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, urged Trump to "finally do the right thing for the American people and stop worrying about his ego."
Americans are living through a bitter holiday season amid a pandemic that has killed nearly 330,000 people in the United States, with a daily death toll now repeatedly well over 3,000 people, the highest since the pandemic began.
The relief package also extends a moratorium on evictions that expires on Dec 31, refreshes support for small business payrolls, provides funding to help schools re-open and aid for the transport industry and vaccine distribution.
Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, said Trump’s refusal to sign the economic stimulus bill was difficult to fathom.
“I don’t get the point,” Kinzinger told CNN’s “State of the Union." “Unless it’s just to create chaos, and show power, and be upset because you lost the election."
The US Congress, which normally is adjourned the last week of December, is preparing to return to work.
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives plans to vote on Monday on legislation providing one-time US$2,000 checks to people, but Republican lawmakers are already concerned about the cost of the larger package.
Without enactment of the broad relief and funding bill, the US government runs out of money at midnight Dec 28. If the battle with Trump is not resolved by then, Congress must either pass a stopgap funding bill or federal agencies will not have money to fully operate beginning Tuesday.
That scenario could be avoided if both the House and Senate pass a funding bill that is separate from the pandemic legislation and the president signs it by midnight Monday.