Politics overhangs US Christmas as government shutdown nears, Covid-19 aid uncertain

The fight over the spending and aid package comes as Americans face an unprecedented holiday season. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - President Donald Trump will spend Christmas Day at his Palm Beach resort as millions of Americans face the risk of losing jobless benefits on Saturday (Dec 26) and a partial government shutdown looms next week, following his threat to not sign a US$2.3 trillion (S$3.06 trillion) coronavirus aid and spending package.

Democratic President-elect Joe Biden, whose victory Mr Trump still refuses to acknowledge nearly two months after the Nov 3 election, is spending the day at his Delaware home and has no public events, according to his staff.

Meanwhile, the US Congress, which normally is adjourned the last week of December, will be preparing to return to work.

On Monday, following the Christmas weekend, the House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on overriding Mr Trump's veto of a US$740 billion bill authorising the country's defense programs. If the House vote succeeds, the Senate could hold its vote as early as Tuesday.

The fight over the spending and aid package comes as Americans face an unprecedented holiday season, amid a pandemic that is killing people in record numbers. Nearly 320,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 this year and the daily death toll is repeatedly well over 3,000, the highest since the pandemic began.

On Christmas Eve, Mr Trump played golf at his course in West Palm Beach, Florida, and tweeted a series of grievances repeating his baseless claims about the election result, including one aimed at Senate Republicans, whom he accuses of abandoning him because many now publicly recognise Mr Biden as the winner.

Mr Trump issued dozens of pardons this week, including to former aides convicted for obstructing a federal investigation into Mr Trump's ties to Russia, and to four private security guards convicted of killing unarmed Iraqi civilians.

Mr Trump stunned members of both parties when he unexpectedly announced this week his dislike of the US$2.3 trillion spending bill, a package that had taken the House and Senate months to negotiate. The bill provides US$892 billion in coronavirus relief, and US$1.4 trillion in regular government appropriations.

Mr Trump, who was represented in the negotiations with lawmakers by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and had not objected to the terms prior to the House and Senate votes, complained that the package was too full of money for special interests and foreign aid, and said the US$600 in direct payments to most Americans was too small, demanding instead that the amount be increased to US$2,000.

A White House official said Thursday that Mr Trump's threat to not sign the bill should not come as a surprise, noting that Mr Trump had once signed a mammoth omnibus bill against his better judgment and said at the time that he would not do it again.

In December 2018, Mr Trump started a 35-day government shutdown when he refused to sign a spending bill that did not include the funding he wanted for a border wall.

Without his signature on the coronavirus aid bill, about 14 million people will lose unemployment benefits on Saturday, and a partial government shutdown will begin on Tuesday.

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Dec 23, 2020. PHOTO: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

It is unclear if Mr Trump will ultimately sign the US$2.3 trillion bill. Mr Trump could also choose to take advantage of a situation known as a "pocket veto," rather than outright vetoing the coronavirus aid package. Because the current Congress expires on Jan 3, Mr Trump could let the normal 10-day period that a president has to sign or veto a bill simply run out. Bills die if they are not enacted during the Congress in which they are introduced.

If he does issue a veto, the House and Senate could try and override it next week. Congress might also have to pass a stopgap spending bill on Monday, before money that funds government operations expires at midnight.

Also on Monday, the Democratic-controlled House plans to vote on legislation providing one-time, US$2,000 checks to individuals to help them during the coronavirus pandemic.

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