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COVID-19 Relief Aid Will Be On Its Way, Government Shutdown Avoided


Relief aid will be on the way to millions of struggling Americans, and a looming government shutdown has been avoided. President Trump signed into law last night the massive coronavirus relief and spending package that Congress passed last week. He finally signed after making last-minute demands for higher direct payments that threatened to derail the whole deal. Here with us to help break down what happened are NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and chief economic correspondent Scott Horsley. Welcome to you both.



FADEL: So let's start with you, Franco. President Trump called this package a disgrace, but then he signed it. Why the change of heart?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, he had two main issues. First, he wanted direct payments increased from $600 to $2,000. And second, he's been complaining about some spending provisions in the accompanying federal spending bill, and frankly, those haven't changed. In a really strongly worded statement, Trump says the House and Senate will vote on increasing direct payments, though it's unclear if the Republican-led Senate will actually take up the measure. And Trump also said he'll send Congress a formal request to remove what he called wasteful items. But again, it's more of a suggestion and no guarantees that they'll do them.

The reality, though, is that he's been under tremendous pressure from lawmakers in both parties to sign. Unemployment programs expired over the weekend, but also government spending was set to expire tonight.

FADEL: Now, Scott, remind us of the main provisions of the COVID relief aid bill. What can Americans expect?

HORSLEY: Leila, this bill does provide a critical economic lifeline at a sensitive time. It has more money for food stamps, rental assistance, another round of forgivable loans for small businesses. And it does include the direct benefit of $600 for many Americans - less than Trump wanted, but still $600. That money may take a little longer to go out because of the president's delay in signing the bill, but Americans will have some extra money in their bank accounts as we start the new year. There's also money for vaccine distribution, which, of course, is ultimately what's going to save the economy as well as a lot of lives. And then that big spending bill to which the relief measure was attached just keeps the government functioning through September.

FADEL: Now, Franco, Trump's criticism of this package last Tuesday really blindsided lawmakers. Congress overwhelmingly passed the legislation last week after seven months of negotiations. So what was the point of this delay?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. There really was no warning. Both Republicans and Democrats were stunned, especially since Trump's own treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, had helped negotiate all this. This really put Republicans in a bind. There was a bipartisan consensus that he should sign it with even some Republicans trying to convince the president, the leader of their own party, that they could seek bigger payments later. Here's Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey, a retiring Republican senator, on Fox yesterday.


PAT TOOMEY: I understand he wants to be remembered for advocating for big checks, but the danger is he'll be remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behavior if he allows this to expire.

FADEL: Scott, millions of Americans are still unemployed - people like Charissa Ward. She was furloughed from her job as a server at Disney World in April. Her $275 weekly payments expired on Saturday. And NPR's Michel Martin spoke to her after that.


CHARISSA WARD: Feeling that security blanket is ripped from you, that you have that job that you knew that you could rely on, and it's not there anymore - it takes a lot out of you. I have three kids that I have to try to not make it seem stressful for while I'm at the same time juggling that.

FADEL: Now, Ward and many others thought they were losing benefits. So what does this bill mean for them?

HORSLEY: Well, it does mean these emergency unemployment programs will be extended. But by waiting until Sunday to sign the bill, Trump is interrupting the safety net for millions of people for at least a week. And millions of others are also going to lose a week's worth of supplemental benefits worth $300. So in finally signing the bill, Trump did put out the fire that he himself had started. But a lot of innocent people got burned along the way.

FADEL: Yeah. So Scott, how much does this latest round of relief aid help the economy and so many Americans who need help right now?

HORSLEY: This is a sizable relief package. You know, $900 billion is more than the Obama administration was able to muscle through Congress with a Democratic majority back at the beginning of the last recession. So it is an economic shot in the arm to go along with the vaccines that are rolling out now. There's certainly going to be more for the incoming Biden administration to do. But this will keep families and businesses afloat for a few more months and buy the new president and new Congress some time. Obviously, a lot of folks will be disappointed that the direct benefits are not going to be increased to $2,000 as the president wanted.

But while that extra money would have been nice for a lot of people, it's not very well targeted. You know, a lot of it would have just sat in people's bank accounts because they can't travel right now or go to concerts or do lots of other things that they would ordinarily do with that money. We saw that with the last round of $1,200 payments that went out in the spring. So compared to other measures in this bill, like food stamps or unemployment benefits, or compared to things that aren't in the bill, like aid to cities and states, you know, direct payments just don't provide a whole lot of bang for the buck in terms of boosting the economy.

FADEL: I want to turn back to you, Franco. Lawmakers are back this week. What are we watching for from them?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, it's going to be a busy week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to force a vote today on the $2,000 direct payments. She wants Republicans on record opposing it - something that Republican leaders really hope to avoid. In a statement after Trump signed the measure, Pelosi said a vote by Republicans against this bill is, quote, "a vote to deny the financial hardships that families face." You know, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised the signing in his own statement, but he didn't make any reference to any of the commitments referred to by the president. And Congress is also considering overriding Trump's veto of another spending bill in defense. And again, it's really unclear what Trump's going to do. He's just continuing to add to the chaos here at the end of the year.

FADEL: Scott, what's the larger economic picture here?

HORSLEY: Leila, this bill comes at a really critical time for the U.S. economy. We learned last week that personal income fell in November as earlier federal relief measures dried up. Personal spending fell last month as well, either because people couldn't afford to go out and spend money or because they were nervous about going out and spending money at a time when coronavirus infections are going through the roof. So the economy is really in a delicate place right now. This relief package will help. It is a life support system. It's unfortunate that it took so long for Congress to negotiate this package and so long for the president to sign it, but better late than never.

FADEL: NPR chief economic correspondent Scott Horsley and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thank you so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.