Trump signs COVID-19 relief bill, averts U.S. government shutdown

U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday signed into law a $2.3 trillion US COVID-19 aid and government-funding bill, restoring unemployment benefits to millions in the United States and averting a partial federal government shutdown.

Trump announced the signing in a statement Sunday night. Trump, who leaves office on Jan. 20 after losing November’s election to Democratic rival Joe Biden, backed down from his threat to block the bill, which was approved by Congress last week, after he came under intense pressure from lawmakers on both sides.

The massive bill includes $900 billion US in pandemic relief that will deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals. It also includes $1.4 trillion US to fund government agencies through September and contains other end-of-session priorities such as money for cash-starved transit systems and an increase in food stamp benefits.

The Republican president, who golfed on Sunday and remained out of public view even as the potential government shutdown loomed, had demanded that Congress change the bill to increase the size of stimulus cheques for struggling people in the country to $2,000 US from $600 US.

“I will sign the omnibus and COVID package with a strong message that makes clear to Congress that wasteful items need to be removed,” Trump said in the statement.

While the president insisted he would send Congress “a redlined version” with items to be removed under the rescission process, those are merely suggestions to Congress. The bill, as signed, would not necessarily be changed.

Lawmakers now have breathing room to continue debating whether the relief cheques should be as large as the president has demanded. The Democratic-led House supports the larger cheques and is set to vote on the issue Monday, but it’s expected to be ignored by the Republican-held Senate where spending faces opposition.

It was not immediately clear why Trump changed his mind as his resistance to the massive legislative package promised a chaotic final stretch of his presidency.

White House officials have been tight-lipped about Trump’s thinking, but a source familiar with the situation told Reuters that some advisers had urged him to relent because they did not see the point of refusing.

In the face of growing economic hardship, spreading disease and a looming shutdown, lawmakers on Sunday had urged Trump to sign the legislation immediately, then have Congress follow up with additional aid. 

Democrats are promising more aid to come once president-elect Biden takes office, but Republicans are signalling a wait-and-see approach.

Unemployment benefits being paid out to about 14 million people through pandemic programs lapsed on Saturday, but will be restarted now that Trump has signed the bill.

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