WEST BEACH: 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 on Sunday as Trump continued to demand larger Covid relief cheques and complained about pork spending. Without the widespread funding provided by the massive measure, a government shutdown would occur when money runs out at 12:01am on 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 cheques to most Americans insisting it should be for $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 on 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 programmes providing unemployment aid.

“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 programmes 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 could be closer to 14m 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 on Wednesday.

How and when people would be affected by the lapse depended on the state they lived in, the programme 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 programme 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 programme that expired altogether on Saturday. That programme made unemployment insurance available to freelancers, gig workers and others who were normally not eligible.

After receiving their last cheques, 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.

Published in Dawn, December 28th, 2020

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