U.S. House approves increased COVID-19 relief cheques, sending bill to Senate

The U.S. House of Representatives voted Monday to increase COVID-19 relief cheques to $2,000 US, meeting President Donald Trump’s demand for bigger payments and sending the bill to the Republican-controlled Senate, where the outcome is uncertain.

Democrats led passage of the bill by a vote of 275-134, their majority favouring additional assistance. They had settled for smaller $600 payments in a compromise with Republicans over the big year-end relief bill Trump reluctantly signed into law.

The vote deeply divided Republicans, who mostly resist more spending. But many House Republicans joined in support, preferring to link with Democrats rather than buck the outgoing president. Senators were set to return to session on Tuesday, forced to consider the measure.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared, “Republicans have a choice: Vote for this legislation or vote to deny the American people” the assistance she said they need during the pandemic.

The showdown could end up as more symbol than substance. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has declined to say publicly how the Senate will handle the bill when Democrats there try to push it forward for a vote on Tuesday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks to reporters after initial agreement on the COVID-19 aid package in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 20. (Ken Cedeno/Reuters)

Democrats vote to override Trump veto on defence

Hours later, the Democratic-controlled House also voted to override Trump’s veto of a defence policy bill.

House members voted 322-87 to override the veto, well above the two-thirds needed to override. If approved by two-thirds of the Senate, the override would be the first of Trump’s presidency.

Trump rejected the defence bill last week, saying it failed to limit social media companies he claims were biased against him during his failed re-election campaign. Trump also opposes language that allows for the renaming of military bases that honour Confederate leaders.

The defence bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, affirms three per cent pay raises for U.S. troops and authorizes more than $740 billion in military programs and construction.

COVID bill gives cash to individuals, businesses

The legislative action during the rare holiday week session may do little to change the more than $2 trillion COVID-19 relief and federal spending package that Trump signed into law on Sunday, one of the biggest bills of its kind providing relief for millions of Americans.

Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, ranking member of the House ways and means committee, acknowledged the division and said Congress had already approved ample funds during the COVID-19 crisis. “Nothing in this bill helps anybody get back to work,” he said.

The new bill now goes to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday for a final vote. (Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press)

The package the president signed into law includes two parts — $900 billion in COVID aid and $1.4 trillion to fund government agencies. It will deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and avert a federal government shutdown that otherwise would have started on Tuesday, in the midst of the public health crisis.

Aside from the direct cheques that will go to most Americans, the COVID portion of the bill revives a weekly pandemic jobless benefit boost — this time $300 through March 14 — as well as a popular Paycheck Protection Program of grants to businesses to keep workers on payrolls. It also extends eviction protections, adding a new rental assistance fund.

Last standoffs of Trump’s final days

The COVID package draws on and expands an earlier effort from Washington, the largest of its kind. It offers billions of dollars for vaccine purchases and distribution, for virus contact tracing, public health departments, schools, universities, farmers, food pantry programs and other institutions and groups facing hardship in the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the government funding portion of the bill keeps federal agencies nationwide running without dramatic changes until Sept. 30.

The attempt to send much higher pandemic-era cheques to people is perhaps the last standoff of the president’s final days in office as he imposes fresh demands and disputes the results of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

The new Congress is set to be sworn in Sunday.

U.S. President Donald Trump plays golf at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Monday. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Resistance in the Senate

The COVID relief bill faces resistance Tuesday from the Republican-led Senate. McConnell, in a rare break with Trump, had urged passage of the defence bill despite Trump’s veto threat. McConnell said it was important for Congress to continue its nearly six-decade-long streak of passing the defence policy bill.

Trump’s sudden decision to sign the COVID bill came as he faced escalating criticism from lawmakers on all sides.

Republican Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, a conservative who supported Trump’s extraordinary and futile challenge of the election results, counted himself on Monday among the opponents of a more generous relief package and Trump’s call for higher payments.

“It’s money we don’t have, we have to borrow to get and we can’t afford to pay back,” he said on Fox and Friends.

Democrats are promising more aid to come once Democrat president-elect Joe Biden takes office, but Republicans are signalling a wait-and-see approach.

Biden told reporters at an event in Wilmington, Del., that he supported the $2,000 cheques.

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