WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump's sudden demand for $2,000 checks for most Americans was swiftly rejected by House Republicans on Thursday as his actions throw the covid relief and government funding bill into chaos.
The rare Christmas Eve session of the House lasted just minutes, with help for millions of Americans awaiting Trump's signature on the bill. Unemployment benefits, eviction protections and other emergency aid, including $600 checks, are at risk. Trump's refusal of the $900 billion package, which is linked to the $1.4 trillion government funds bill, could spark a federal shutdown at midnight Monday.
"We're not going to let the government shut down, nor are we going to let the American people down," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the majority leader.
Asked if it had been a mistake to tie the relief package and the spending omnibus together, Hoyer said, "Perhaps the only mistake was believing the president and [Treasury Secretary Steven] Mnuchin when we were told that the bill to be passed would be signed by the president of the United States."
Families are isolated under covid precautions and millions of American households are devastated without adequate income, food or shelter. The virus death toll of 328,000-plus is rising.
Congressional Republican leaders have been left almost speechless by Trump's year-end scorching of the relief package.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy helped negotiate the year-end deal, a prized bipartisan compromise that won sweeping approval this week in the House and Senate after the White House assured GOP leaders that Trump supported it.
Mnuchin boasted that the $600 checks for Americans would be in the mail in a week.
The president is at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida for Christmas. He has been urging Republicans to join his efforts to overturn the presidential election results when the Electoral College votes are tallied in Congress on Jan. 6.
"The best way out of this is for the president to sign the bill," Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said Thursday. "And I still hope that's what he decides."
Racing to salvage the year-end legislation, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Mnuchin were in talks on options.
Democrats will recall House lawmakers to Washington for a vote Monday on Trump's proposal, with a roll call that would put all members on record as supporting or rejecting the $2,000 checks.
Pelosi declared that voting against the bill would "deny the financial hardship that families face and ... deny them the relief they need."
Democrats are also considering a Monday vote on a stopgap measure to at least avert a federal shutdown. It would keep the government running until Joe Biden is inaugurated as president Jan. 20.
Lawmakers walso will be asked to override Trump's veto this week of a must-pass defense bill.
After presiding over the short House session, an exasperated Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., decried the possibility that the covid assistance may collapse.
"It is Christmas Eve, but it is not a silent night. All is not calm. For too many, nothing is bright," she said on Capitol Hill.
A town-hall meeting that she hosted the night before "had people crying, people terrified of what is going to happen," she said. One father recently told her he had to tell his children there would be no Santa Claus this year, she said.
The president "doesn't give a damn about people," Dingell said. "He sowed more fear. He threw kerosene on a fire."
The president's push to increase direct payments for most Americans from $600 to $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for couples gets support from Democrats but splits the GOP.
Republican lawmakers traditionally balk at big spending, never fully embracing Trump's populist approach. Many have opposed $2,000 checks as too costly and poorly targeted.
On a conference call Wednesday, House Republicans complained that Trump threw them under the bus, according to one lawmaker on the private call and granted anonymity to discuss it. Most had voted for the package, and they urged GOP leaders to go on the cable news shows to explain its benefits, the person said.
Yet the president has found common ground with Democrats, particularly leading liberals who support the $2,000 payments as the best way to help struggling Americans. Democrats settled for the lower number only to compromise with Republicans.
Even if the House is able to approve Trump's $2,000 checks Monday, that measure would probably die in the GOP-controlled Senate, which is due back in session Tuesday.
The president's demands are creating more Trump-related headaches for Georgia GOP Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who are fighting for their political lives -- and for continued GOP control of the Senate -- in a pair of Jan. 5 runoff elections. They are being forced to choose whether to back or buck Trump, potentially angering voters on all sides.
The clash Thursday unfolded as the Democratic-controlled House convened for a routine pro forma session, which had been scheduled before Trump's unexpected move, when lawmakers anticipated no business being conducted.
Instead, the 12-minute House session morphed into a procedural brawl as Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat, sought the unanimous approval of all House members to pass the bill with Trump's proposal. GOP leader McCarthy, who was not present in the nearly empty chamber, refused.
House Republicans then tried, and failed, to win unanimous approval of their own proposal to revisit routine foreign aid funding, which Trump had cited as one of his key objections to the overall spending package -- funding that the president has agreed to in the past and had asked for in his yearly budget.
"Certainly, the negotiated foreign aid provisions would not benefit by opening that part of the bill up, and frankly if you start opening part of the bill up, it's hard to defend not opening the whole bill up. It took us a long time to get to where we are. I think reopening that bill would be a mistake," Blunt told reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday.
The package Trump railed against as a "disgrace" is the product of months of work. It would establish a temporary $300-per-week supplemental jobless benefit, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theaters, and money for schools. Money is included for health-care providers and to help with covid vaccine distribution.
The final text of the 5,000-plus-page bill required days to be compiled, but Pelosi announced Thursday that it was completed and being sent to the White House for Trump's signature.
The year-end timing complicates the schedule. Even if Trump doesn't formally veto the package, he could allow it to expire with a pocket veto at the end of the congressional session.
The Senate cleared the relief package Monday in a 92-6 vote after the House approved it 359-53. Those vote totals would be enough to override a veto if Trump decides to veto it.
Republican leaders were left wondering aloud why Congress was still dealing with a matter on Christmas Eve that they thought had been finally put to rest Monday night.
"There's a long list of positive things that we'd be talking about today if we weren't talking about this," Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Republican leadership, told fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill.
"And I think that would be to the president's advantage if we were talking about his accomplishments rather than questioning decisions late in the administration."
Rank-and-file Republicans are expressing frustration as well. On Wednesday evening, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, argued that House Republicans had stood by Trump for four years.
"If he thinks going on Twitter and trashing the bill his team negotiated and we supported on his behalf is going to bring more people to his side in this election fiasco, I hope he's wrong, though I guess we'll see," Gonzalez wrote on Twitter.
Information for this article was contributed by Lisa Mascaro and Andrew Taylor of The Associated Press; and by Emily Cochrane and Luke Broadwater of The New York Times.