Unemployment benefits for millions of struggling Americans are set to lapse at midnight unless US president Donald Trump signs an end-of-year Covid-19 relief and spending bill that had been considered a done deal before his sudden objections.
Mr Trump’s refusal to sign the bipartisan package as he demands larger Covid-19 relief cheques and complains about “pork” spending could also force a federal government shutdown when the money runs out at 12.01am on Tuesday – in the middle of a pandemic.
Washington has been reeling since Mr Trump threw the package into limbo after it had already won sweeping approval in both houses of congress and after the White House assured Republican leaders that the president would support it.
Instead, he has assailed the bill’s plan to provide 600 dollars (£442) Covid-19 relief cheques to most Americans – insisting it should be 2,000 dollars (£1,474).
House Republicans swiftly rejected that idea during a rare Christmas Eve session, but Mr Trump has not been swayed.
“I simply want to get our great people $2000, rather than the measly $600 that is now in the bill,” Mr Trump tweeted from Palm Beach, where he is spending the Christmas holiday. “Also, stop the billions of dollars in ‘pork.’”
US president-elect Joe Biden called on Mr Trump to sign the bill immediately as two federal programmes providing unemployment aid were set to expire on Saturday.
“It is the day after Christmas, and millions of families don’t know if they’ll be able to make ends meet because of President Donald Trump’s refusal to sign an economic relief bill approved by Congress with an overwhelming and bipartisan majority,” Mr Biden said.
He accused Mr Trump of an “abdication of responsibility” that will have “devastating consequences”.
“I’ve been talking to people who are scared they’re going to be kicked out from their homes, during the Christmas holidays, and still might be if we don’t sign this bill,” said US representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat.
Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, has calculated that 11 million people would lose aid from the programmes immediately without additional relief; millions more would exhaust other unemployment benefits within weeks.
The bill awaiting Mr Trump’s signature would also activate a weekly 300 dollar (£221) federal supplement to unemployment payments.
The president has been spending his final days in office golfing and angrily tweeting as he refuses to accept his loss to Mr Biden in the November 3 election.
On Saturday, he again lashed out at members of his own party for failing to join his quest to try to overturn the results of the election with baseless claims of mass voter fraud that have been repeatedly rejected by the courts.
“If a Democrat Presidential Candidate had an Election Rigged & Stolen, with proof of such acts at a level never seen before, the Democrat Senators would consider it an act of war, and fight to the death,” he railed.
He also said senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and his Republicans “just want to let it pass. NO FIGHT!”
Mr Trump also lashed out at the supreme court, the justice department and the FBI as he seemed to encourage his supporters to gather in Washington on January 6, the day US congress tallies the electoral college vote — even though a similar event last month devolved into violence, with multiple people being stabbed in the capital’s streets.
In addition to freezing unemployment benefits, Mr Trump’s lack of action on the bill would lead to the expiration of eviction protections and put on hold a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theatres, along with money to help schools and vaccine distribution.
The relief is also attached to a 1.4 trillion dollar (£1 trillion) US government funding bill to keep the federal government operating.