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House Set To Vote On Increasing Pandemic Direct Payments To $2,000


In Congress, the last few days of this year are shaping up to end as many days have ended this year - in political turmoil. President Trump narrowly avoided another government shutdown when he backed down and signed a bipartisan funding bill and a COVID-19 relief package on Sunday. He had threatened to let both government funding and pandemic-related benefits for millions of people expire over a demand to increase direct relief payments in the bill from $600 to $2,000. Well, Democrats say the bigger checks are what they wanted all along and that Republicans, including Trump's own White House negotiators, were the ones who said no. And now the Democratic-majority House of Representatives has voted to increase the size of the relief payments to $2,000 right before it voted to override President Trump's veto of an annual defense spending bill. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has been following all of this and joins us now.

Hey, Kelsey.


CHANG: All right, so President Trump's decision to sign the bill was kind of out of the blue, right? Like, it was a last-minute reversal. Can you just catch us up on everything that has happened up until now?

SNELL: Well, as you explained, President Trump was insisting that he wouldn't sign the bill over the stimulus checks and what he said was pork, or unnecessary spending, in the package. You know, he seemed to kind of conflate the spending bill, which funds the government through the end of the fiscal year, which ends in September, and the separate coronavirus relief package that was attached to it.

You know, his White House team helped negotiate this bill. His Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, met with congressional negotiators over and over and over. But Trump himself basically ignored the process completely. He did nothing to intervene as they were talking. He didn't weigh in. And he was basically absent, you know, all the way going back to the beginning of all of these COVID relief negotiations back to March, you know? And then now he protested when the deal was done only to quietly sign the bill anyway.

CHANG: Interesting, OK. We'll get back to the politics of all of this in a moment. But I just have to ask about the impact of this delay. Because of the president's delay in signing the bill, unemployment benefits expired briefly just after Christmas. I mean, what does that mean in real terms for people who are out of work now?

SNELL: Yeah. You know, this lapse is creating a lot of confusion. People who receive some forms of unemployment may miss out on a week of pay. You know - and it's possible that the payments could be made up in the future. But there are no guarantees right now. And frankly, there's a lot of confusion among the people who work on these issues about just how it will all play out. And, you know, even if the payments do happen eventually, people will still go without checks for at least some time because of Trump's delay.

And the lapse also delays an extra $300 in federal unemployment benefits that are included in the bill - so those weekly benefits on top of the money that states give. And that is a big deal too because those payments have a definite end date. What was once supposed to be a bill to send extra money for 11 weeks to people who were out of work is now a bill to send those people extra money for 10 weeks.

CHANG: And how are Republicans on Capitol Hill responding to these ripple effects?

SNELL: Yeah. This has them all in a pretty difficult spot. First, the House Republicans are being forced to go on the record, either opposing Trump on the checks or voting with Democrats on spending that most of the Republicans criticized for months. And Congress is also voting this week to overturn Trump's veto on the defense bill. You know, that's a whole lot of difficult, political, public votes, you know, to cap off a couple years - four years of Republicans delicately avoiding conflict with this president.

It also happens at a really delicate political moment. The election is over, but the balance of the power in the Senate is still undecided. The runoff election in Georgia is happening next week. And Republican Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue were campaigning on this bill before Trump publicly rejected it, and they've kind of had to scramble all of their messaging.

CHANG: Well - OK. The president did say over the weekend that he's sending requests for specific cuts to the spending bill, a bill that he has already signed, and that Congress will follow up on his other demands. Is that actually going to happen, Kelsey?

SNELL: Basically, no. There's just no way Congress is going to go through and approve those cuts. They're called rescissions, kind of after-the-fact clawbacks of spending that's already been approved. Congress doesn't have any incentive to do this for a president who's leaving office in less than a month. And as for a Senate vote on those bigger spending checks, it's unlikely but possible. There's a lot of politics still at play.

CHANG: That is NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

Thank you, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.