Unemployment benefits for millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet lapsed overnight as President Donald Trump refused to sign an end-of-year COVID relief and spending bill that had been considered a done deal before his sudden objections.
The fate of the bipartisan package remained in limbo Sunday as Trump continued to demand larger COVID relief checks and complained about “pork” spending. Without the widespread funding provided by the massive measure, a government shutdown would occur when money runs out at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.
“It’s a chess game and we are pawns,” said Lanetris Haines, a self-employed single mother of three in South Bend, Indiana, who stood to lose her $129 weekly jobless benefit unless Trump signed the package into law or succeeded in his improbable quest for changes.
Washington has been reeling since Trump turned on the deal after it had won sweeping approval in both houses of Congress and after the White House had assured Republican leaders that Trump would support it.
Instead, he assailed the bill's plan to provide $600 COVID relief checks to most Americans — insisting it should be $2,000. House Republicans swiftly rejected that idea during a rare Christmas Eve session. But Trump has not been swayed in spite of the nation being in the grip of a pandemic.
“I simply want to get our great people $2000, rather than the measly $600 that is now in the bill," Trump tweeted Saturday from Palm Beach, Florida, where he is spending the holiday. “Also, stop the billions of dollars in ‘pork.’”
President-elect Joe Biden called on Trump to sign the bill immediately as the midnight Saturday deadline neared for two federal programs providing unemployment aid.
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“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," Biden said in a statement. He accused Trump of an “abdication of responsibility” that has “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 Rep. 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 programs immediately without additional relief; millions more would exhaust other unemployment benefits within weeks.
Andrew Stettner, an unemployment insurance expert and senior fellow at the Century Foundation think tank, said the number may be closer to 14 million because joblessness has spiked since Thanksgiving.
“All these folks and their families will suffer if Trump doesn’t sign the damn bill,’’ Heidi Shierholz, director of policy at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, tweeted Wednesday.
How and when people would be affected by the lapse depended on the state they lived in, the program they were relying on and when they applied for benefits. In some states, people on regular unemployment insurance would continue to receive payments under a program that extends benefits when the jobless rate surpassed a certain threshold, Stettner said.
About 9.5 million people, however, had been relying on the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that expired altogether Saturday. That program made unemployment insurance available to freelancers, gig workers and others who were normally not eligible. After receiving their last checks, those recipients would not be able to file for more aid, Stettner said.
While payments could be received retroactively, any gap would mean more hardship and uncertainty for Americans who had already grappled with bureaucratic delays, often depleting much of their savings to stay afloat while waiting for payments to kick in.
They were people like Earl McCarthy, a father of four who lives in South Fulton, Georgia, and had been relying on unemployment since losing his job as a sales representative for a luxury senior living community. He said he would be left with no income by the second week of January if Trump refused to sign the bill.
McCarthy said he already burned through much of his savings as he waited five months to begin receiving about $350 a week in unemployment benefits.
“The entire experience was horrifying," said McCarthy. "I shudder to think if I had not saved anything or had an emergency fund through those five months, where would we have been?”
He added, “It’s going to be difficult if the president doesn’t sign this bill.”
The bill, which was in Florida awaiting Trump's signature, would also activate a weekly $300 federal supplement to unemployment payments.
Sharon Shelton Corpening had been hoping the extra help would allow her 83-year-old mother, with whom she lives, to stop eating into her social security payments to make their $1,138 rent.
Corpening, who lives in the Atlanta area, had launched a freelance content strategy business that was just taking off before the pandemic hit, prompting several of her contracts to fall through. She was receiving about $125 a week under the pandemic unemployment program and says she would be unable to pay her bills in about a month. This, despite her temporary work for the U.S. Census and as an elections poll worker.
“We on the brink,” said Corpening, who lobbies for Unemployment Action, a project launched by the Center for Popular Democracy to fight for relief. “One more month, if that. Then, I run out of everything.”
In addition to the unemployment benefits that have already lapsed, Trump's continued refusal to sign 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 theaters, as well as money for cash-starved transit systems and for vaccine distribution.
The relief was also attached to a $1.4 trillion government funding bill to keep the federal government operating through September, which would mean that failing to sign it by midnight Tuesday would trigger a federal shutdown.
Olson reported from New York.