U.S. House approves increased COVID-19 relief cheques, sending bill to Senate

The U.S. House of representatives voted Monday to increase COVID-19 relief cheques to $2,000 US, meeting President Donald Trump’s demand for bigger payments and sending the bill to the Republican-controlled Senate, where the outcome is uncertain.

Democrats led passage, 275-134, their majority favouring additional assistance. They had settled for smaller $600 payments in a compromise with Republicans over the big year-end relief bill Trump reluctantly signed into law.

The vote deeply divided Republicans who mostly resist more spending. But many House Republicans joined in support, preferring to link with Democrats rather than buck the outgoing president. Senators were set to return to session Tuesday, forced to consider the measure.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared, “Republicans have a choice: Vote for this legislation or vote to deny the American people” the assistance she said they need during the pandemic.

The showdown could end up as more symbol than substance. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has declined to say publicly how the Senate will handle the bill when Democrats there try to push it forward for a vote on Tuesday.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, speaks to reporters after initial agreement on the COVID-19 aid package in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 20, 2020. (Ken Cedeno/Reuters)

Bill would deliver cash to individuals, businesses

It’s unclear if Trump accomplished anything during the days of drama over his refusal to accept the sweeping bipartisan deal negotiated by his own administration.

The legislative action during the rare holiday week session may do little to change the more than $2 trillion US COVID-19 relief and federal spending package that Trump signed into law Sunday, one of the biggest bills of its kind providing relief for millions of Americans.

Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, chairman of the ways and means committee, acknowledged the division and said Congress had already approved ample funds during the COVID-19 crisis. “Nothing in this bill helps anybody get back to work,” he said.

The package the president signed into law includes two parts — $900 billion in COVID aid and $1.4 trillion to fund government agencies. It will deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and avert a federal government shutdown that otherwise would have started Tuesday, in the midst of the public health crisis.

Aside from the direct cheques that will go to most Americans, the COVID portion of the bill revives a weekly pandemic jobless benefit boost — this time $300 through March 14 — as well as a popular Paycheck Protection Program of grants to businesses to keep workers on payrolls. It also extends eviction protections, adding a new rental assistance fund.

The new bill now goes to the U.S. Senate Tuesday for a final vote. (Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press)

Defence bill also facing override vote

The COVID package draws on and expands an earlier effort from Washington, the largest of its kind. It offers billions of dollars for vaccine purchases and distribution, for virus contact tracing, public health departments, schools, universities, farmers, food pantry programs and other institutions and groups facing hardship in the pandemic.

Meantime the government funding portion of the bill keeps federal agencies nationwide running without dramatic changes until Sept. 30.

Together with votes Monday and Tuesday to override Trump’s veto of a sweeping defence bill, the attempt to send much higher pandemic-era cheques to people is perhaps the last standoff of the president’s final days in office as he imposes fresh demands and disputes the results of the presidential election.

The new Congress is set to be sworn in Sunday.

Resistance in the Senate

The COVID relief bill faces resistance Tuesday from the Republican-led Senate.

Trump’s sudden decision to sign the bill came as he faced escalating criticism from lawmakers on all sides over his eleventh-hour demands.

The bipartisan bill negotiated by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had already passed the House and Senate by wide margins. Lawmakers had thought they had Trump’s blessing after months of negotiations with his administration.

The president’s defiant refusal to act, publicized with a heated video he tweeted just before the Christmas holiday, sparked chaos, a lapse in unemployment benefits for millions and the threat of a government shutdown in the pandemic. It was another crisis of his own making, resolved when he ultimately signed the bill into law.

In his statement about the signing, Trump repeated his frustrations with the COVID-19 relief bill for providing only $600 cheques to most Americans and complained about what he considered unnecessary spending, particularly on foreign aid — much of it proposed by his own budget.

A day after the signing, Trump was back at the golf course in Florida, where he is expected to move after president-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on January 20.

U.S. President Donald Trump plays golf at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Dec. 28, 2020. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Republican Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, a conservative who supported Trump’s extraordinary and futile challenge of the election results, counted himself Monday among the opponents of a more generous relief package and Trump’s call for higher payments.

“It’s money we don’t have, we have to borrow to get and we can’t afford to pay back,” he said on Fox and Friends.

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

Biden told reporters at an event in Wilmington, Delaware, that he supported the $2,000 cheques.

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