In surprising comments, President Donald Trump shredded a just-passed massive Covid-19 relief package Tuesday night, saying the legislation includes measures that have nothing to do with the pandemic and that it is too stingy with payments to average Americans.
"I am asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 (direct payment) to $2,000 or $4,000 for a couple," Trump said in a video posted to Twitter showing him speaking from the White House.
"I'm also asking Congress to immediately get rid of the wasteful and unnecessary items from this legislation and to send me a suitable bill, or else the next administration will have to deliver a Covid relief package," said, adding: "And maybe that administration will be me, and we will get it done."
Before Trump spoke, all signs and expectations had been that he intended to sign the relief bill as soon as it lands on his desk, possibly later this week. White House aides, in fact, said as much.
While Trump didn't explicitly say he will veto the legislation, his remarks suggested that he might. If he does so, lawmakers might be able to override his veto, but if he simply refuses to sign it, the bill might die.
House Democrats, who had advocated higher direct checks only to encounter Republican resistance in the Senate, immediately said they welcomed Trump's support for sending out more money. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland tweeted that Democrats would try Thursday to pass a separate bill that would send out $2,000 direct payments. Because many members of the House are out of town, Hoyer said, leaders will try to pass the bill by unanimous consent, but that means any single member can kill it. The fate of such a bill is unclear in the Senate.
The legislation already passed by Congress included two bills that were combined: One was the Covid-19 relief and stimulus bill, and the other was a large spending bill to fund the government through next September. If the spending bill is not enacted into law, the government will have to shut down Monday.
In the four-minute video, Trump trashed the legislation for including, among other things, what he said was "$85.5 million for assistance to Cambodia; $134 million to Burma; $1.3 billion for Egypt and the Egyptian military, which will go out and buy almost exclusively Russian military equipment; $25 million for democracy and gender programs in Pakistan; $505 million to Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Forty million for the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., which is not even open for business, $1 billion for the Smithsonian and an additional $154 million for the National Gallery of Art."
All of those items were in the spending bill, not the Covid-19 bill, which Trump seemed to be conflating.
"This is far more than the Americans are given. Despite all of this wasteful spending," Trump added.
Congress can't amend the bill now that it has been passed, and it would have to consider new legislation.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Democrats had fought to boost the direct payments to Americans in the face of GOP opposition.
The nearly $900 billion package, passed with bipartisan support, includes a new round of stimulus checks, an extension of unemployment benefits and more money for vaccines and education.
The legislation easily passed in the House — 359 to 53 — before it breezed through the Senate shortly before midnight Monday in a 92-6 vote.
The agreement includes stimulus checks of up to $600 per person for individuals earning $75,000 per year and married couples who earn up to $150,000, with $600 more for each dependent under 18 living in the same household.
It would also extend unemployment insurance and federal unemployment insurance — $300 a week — and provide over $284 billion more in loans for businesses struggling to pay rent and workers, $69 billion for testing and vaccine distribution and $82 billion for colleges and schools.
Because of the size of the 5,600-page bill and because government funding runs out at midnight, lawmakers attached a separate measure to avoid a government shutdown for seven days.
The Senate Historical Office said it appears to be the longest bill ever approved by Congress, The Associated Press reported. Lawmakers complained that they didn't have time to read through the legislation before the votes.
The direct payments would be smaller than the $1,200 checks people received when Congress passed a $2 trillion stimulus package, called the CARES Act, in March to soften the early economic blow of the pandemic for workers and businesses. The enhanced unemployment benefits are also less than the $600 a week provided in that bill, which was the largest economic relief package in modern U.S. history.
Earlier, before Trump's attack on the measure, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC on Monday that Americans would begin getting direct payments by "the beginning of next week."
Lawmakers had been at loggerheads over a second relief package for months as Covid-19 cases and deaths continued to rise during the holiday season, and many Americans and small-business owners are in dire financial straits. A recent study by the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, for example, found that if direct unemployment aid was not extended, 5 million more people would enter poverty in January.
The parties worked out a deal that includes many of their top priorities. For Democrats, those included an extension of the moratorium on evictions and targeted funding for underrepresented groups, such as Native American and other minority communities. House Republicans, meanwhile, pointed to limits on benefits for undocumented immigrants and food stamp payments as wins.
The legislation does not include hundreds of billions of dollars for states and localities for Medicare or relief for teachers and first responders who have come under financial distress during the pandemic. Republicans pushed for liability protection from Covid-19-related lawsuits for businesses, universities and health care centers, but that was also left out.
Schumer criticized Republicans on the Senate floor ahead of the vote Monday, saying more aid is needed.
"This bill cannot and will not be the final word upon congressional relief from the coronavirus pandemic," he said. "This is an emergency survival package, and when we come back in January, our No. 1 job will be to fill in the gaps left by the bill and get the economy moving with strong federal input."