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What's At Stake With Trump's Threat: COVID-19 Relief And A Government Shutdown

East Alabama Medical Center nurse Harvard Graham checks fluids for a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit this month in Opelika, Ala.
East Alabama Medical Center nurse Harvard Graham checks fluids for a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit this month in Opelika, Ala.

Updated at 3:26 p.m. ET

President Trump's done it again.

The man who threatened to cause a ruckus in Washington — and has done so over his four years in office — introduced a new round of disarray Tuesday night.

Trump's pre-Christmas chaos includes:

  • Calling on Congress to send him a new coronavirus relief bill with higher direct payments to people;
  • Wanting to strip a larger spending package of foreign aid and items such as funding for new museums; and
  • Vetoing the defense authorization act Wednesday, because it doesn't repeal protections for social media outlets he believes to be hostile to conservatives and because the bill gets rid of the names of Confederate generals on several military bases.
  • In addition to endangering relief to millions of Americans due to the coronavirus pandemic, Trump's bombshell also brings the country to the brink of yet another government shutdown.

    Trump signed a one-week temporary spending measure Monday to keep the lights on as the bill made its way to his desk, but the government will shut down at midnight Tuesday if more funding isn't provided.

    The way out of Trump's criticism of the bill isn't clear, with the clock running out on this Congress and most members now home for the holidays.

    Trump's move also throws a wrinkle into the crucial Georgia Senate races that will determine control of the Senate during President-elect Joe Biden's first term. Both incumbent Republicans, Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, touted the bill, saying more help was finally on the way — and blamed Democrats for the delay.

    COVID-19 relief in jeopardy

    On Tuesday, Trump called on Congress to increase the direct payments drastically, throwing a big wrench into whether and when people will get needed money because of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

    "I am asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000, or $4,000 for a couple," Trump said in a video. "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."

    That came despite months of bitter, bipartisan negotiations to get a bill that finally could pass both chambers, which it did Monday. The package passed with veto-proof majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate.

    Trump didn't say he'd veto the package, but he didn't say he'd sign it either.

    Trump's call for direct payments that are more than triple what's in the final version of the bill is ironic, considering it was Republicans who stood in the way of higher payments for months — and because Trump's Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, was heavily involved in the negotiations.

    Democrats leaped at the president's suggestion of more money for direct payments. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said they would bring legislation to the floor Thursday to pass it.

    The problem, however, is two-fold — (1) With most members out of town, the legislation would have be approved by voice vote or unanimous consent, and (2) House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has to sign onto it. If one member objects, it would be shut down, and there would not be the ability to have the entire House vote on it with a roll call.

    In a letter to her colleagues, Pelosi also revealed that in negotiations, Republicans had floated direct payments as low as $500.

    "In the bipartisan negotiations, [Senate] Leader [Chuck] Schumer and I repeatedly asked Republicans what would be the highest number the President would accept for direct payments, and they responded with Sphinx-like silence," she wrote. "In the negotiations, they would never go above $600 and in some cases, proposed $500."

    Trump's criticism now puts Republicans on Capitol Hill in a tight spot — they agreed to the current bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not responded to Trump's latest comments.

    Larger spending package in peril, too

    Given that this Congress's clock expires at noon Jan. 3 when a new Congress will be sworn in, this was seen as the last likely chance to pass anything through this Congress.

    So the $900 billion in COVID-19 relief was paired with a larger $1.4 trillion spending package that is more than 5,500 pages.

    It was the result of months of negotiations between various committees for bipartisan issues important to them, including funding for military pay raises, veterans, border security, water projects, addressing surprise medical billing, creating museums for women's and Latino history, and providing foreign aid.

    In his video statement, Trump objected to the foreign aid and cherry-picked other items, claiming the package "has almost nothing to do with COVID." Ironically, though, many of the items, including foreign aid, were in his own administration's budget sent to Capitol Hill earlier in the year.

    Defense money at risk

    Trump on Wednesday also vetoed the $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act.

    The bill provides pay raises to military service members, approves construction of child care development centers on military bases, expands cyber command authority, provides more training on use of artificial intelligence, adds hundreds of millions for science and technology research, allows victims of sexual harassment and assault to file anonymous complaints, creates a domestic violence task force and has measures lightening some of the burden of the coronavirus pandemic for federal employees.

    But Trump objects because of the social media company protections and the stripping of some facilities with names of Confederate officers. Even Republicans who negotiated the bill pushed back against Trump on the social media protections, saying they're not related to defense.

    The bill passed both the House and Senate with veto-proof majorities — two-thirds would be needed to overturn a presidential veto. So both chambers could act when they come back next week to override it.

    The House is expected to try and do so Monday and the Senate on Tuesday. But there's some question if the override can be upheld, particularly in the House. It would mean Republican allies of the president would have to oppose him in what would be Trump's first of nine vetoes that would not be upheld and in what would be one of the final acts of this Congress during this presidency.

    Sending Trump out with a loss might not be something Republicans want to do. Already, Republican House leader McCarthy, who voted in favor of the defense bill, said he would not support a veto override.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.