Trump Yields on Virus Package, Signing After Damaging Delay

President Donald Trump backed away from a crisis of his own making by signing a pandemic relief bill Sunday night, but only after depriving millions of Americans of a week of unemployment aid and triggering an outcry from lawmakers in both political parties.

By waiting until Sunday to approve the package, Trump cost as many as 14 million Americans one week of expanded unemployment assistance. Meanwhile, Trump’s surprise attack on the bill last week caused confusion about the government’s response at a pivotal moment, with coronavirus cases spiking and officials rushing to distribute a vaccine.

It also triggered political headaches for congressional Republicans a week before two runoff elections in Georgia that will determine control of the Senate.

There was relief in equity markets as Trump’s action meant aid money would flow into the economy and the threat of a government shutdown was erased. In the U.S., the S&P 500 Index rose 0.7% as of 10:11 a.m. in New York.

Trump got little if anything from the drama. Congress is unlikely to agree to the raft of changes Trump demanded in a lengthy signing statement. Once his signature was on the law, the president lost much of the leverage he had to extract $2,000 direct payments, cuts to foreign aid and a rollback of social media companies’ liability shield.

Instead, Trump created a political opening for Democratic leaders.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Monday is staging a roll-call vote on the $2,000 checks in order to spotlight Republican opposition to the politically popular idea backed by Trump. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a tweet that he will seek consent this week in the Senate to pass the House bill, which will force Republicans to either buck the president or go along with $2,000 checks party leaders previously dismissed as too large.

“Every Republican vote against this bill is a vote to deny the financial hardship that families face and to deny the American people the relief they need,” Pelosi said in a statement.

That will create a particular bind for Georgia’s two incumbent Republican senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. They both promoted passage of the $900 billion relief measure only to have Trump criticize it. Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock have made clear they would support the $2,000 payments.

The delay in signing the bill from Thursday to Sunday means that two pandemic-related unemployment programs were allowed to expire on Saturday night. Gig workers and those who have exhausted their state unemployment benefits will lose a week of benefits.

Those on regular unemployment benefits will see a delay in getting the extra $300 federal supplemental benefit in the bill, and the duration of the benefit will be cut short. The $600 stimulus checks which sparked Trump’s objection were to go out this week, a timetable that the delay has put into question.

Former U.S. Treasury economist Ernie Tedeschi estimated on Twitter that the delay cost workers $9 billion to $10 billion in benefits.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said the overall impact on the economy will be minimal.

“There is no upside to the president’s dithering over signing the fiscal relief legislation, but there isn’t much downside, as he signed before the government shut down and before there was a significant disruption from the loss of unemployment insurance benefits,” Zandi said.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. upgraded its first-quarter U.S. economic growth forecast now that the pandemic relief measure has been signed into law.

The five days of chaos sown by Trump’s actions showed how his influence is waning in the final weeks of his presidency even as he tries to cling to power.

The president’s once-iron grip on elected Republicans in Washington had already begun to slip after the Electoral College voted to make Joe Biden the next president, and key GOP figures began to break with Trump’s extraordinary effort to overturn the election result.

This week the House and Senate are staging votes to override Trump’s veto last week of the annual defense authorization bill. The effort has a good chance of succeeding and creating the first veto override of Trump’s presidency.

Not even a threat of a mid-pandemic government shutdown got lawmakers to cave to Trump’s demands on the virus bill. Instead, Trump said he won a commitment from the Senate to begin the process of voting on $2,000 checks along with a repeal of liability protections for social media companies and an investigation of voter fraud. Yet that promise won’t mean much in practice.

A bill combining all those elements would likely fail in the Senate given Democratic opposition to changing Section 230 liability or initiating a voter fraud investigation into the election.

The president also said he will send Congress a list of items in the spending bill he would like rescinded. Democrats immediately responded that they will ignore his request.

“Our Democratic majority will reject any rescissions submitted by President Trump,” House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey said in a statement.

The end result looks a lot like the end of the 35-day government shutdown Trump provoked at the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019 over border wall funding. He ended up signing a bill to reopen the government without receiving the wall money and later used a legally dubious maneuver to transfer funds from the military to pay for the construction.

Election Focus

Throughout the long Christmas holiday weekend, Trump made clear that his focus remains on attempting to overturn his election defeat. He dropped hints his views on legislation were linked to GOP help in the election effort.

The president has been pressing House and Senate Republicans to go along with a doomed effort to challenge the Electoral College tally when Congress convenes Jan. 6 to review the votes. Hours after number two Senate Republican John Thune told reporters that the attempt would go down like a “shot dog,” Trump unleashed both an attack on Thune and on the bill, which had just passed the Senate with 92 votes.

The quixotic attempt to rewrite the virus relief bill that the White House had negotiated sparked condemnation from Republicans and Democrats alike.

“I understand he wants to be remembered for advocating for big checks,” Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey said on the “Fox News Sunday” program before the president gave in. “But the danger is he’ll be remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behavior if he allows this to expire.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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