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Millions to lose welfare payments immediately unless Trump signs bill

Washington: A day before expanded unemployment benefits were set to lapse for millions of struggling Americans, President Donald Trump expressed more criticism on Christmas Day of a $US900 billion ($1,185 billion) pandemic relief bill that was awaiting his signature and would extend them.

The sprawling economic relief package that Congress passed with overwhelming bipartisan support would extend the amount of time that people can collect unemployment benefits until March and revive supplemental unemployment benefits for millions of Americans at $300 a week on top of the usual state benefit.

Millions will lose unemployment relief immediately if US President Donald Trump, pictured with first lady Melania on December 23, does not sign the pandemic relief bill this weekend. Credit:Bloomberg

If Trump signs the bill by sometime on Boxing Day (local time), states will still need time to reprogram their computer systems to account for the new law, according to Michele Evermore of the National Employment Law Project, but unemployed workers would still be able to claim the benefits.

Further delays could prove more costly. States cannot pay out benefits for weeks that begin before the bill is signed, meaning that if the President does not sign the bill by December 26 local time, benefits will not restart until the first week of January. But they will still end in mid-March, effectively trimming the extension to 10 weeks from 11.

Trump blindsided Congress on Tuesday when he hinted he may veto the measure, which he decided at the last minute was unsatisfactory. The most pressing issue prompted by the President's delay was the fate of unemployment benefits. At least a temporary lapse in those benefits is now inevitable.

The country is also facing a looming government shutdown on Tuesday and the expiration of a moratorium on evictions at the end of the year because of the President's refusal to sign the bill.

Trump has called for direct payments to be more than tripled to $2,000 ($2635) per adult and assailed provisions in the funding bill — such as foreign aid and money for the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts — as wasteful.

On Christmas Day, Trump expressed further misgivings about the legislation that awaited his signature but offered no hints on his plans.

Trump was largely uninvolved with the negotiations over the legislation, but his Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, was thought to be negotiating on the President's behalf.

The aid bill also includes billions of dollars to help states with coronavirus vaccine distribution, a replenished small business loan program and relief money for airlines. It was passed along with a spending measure to keep the government funded for the remainder of the fiscal year. The cost of the combined package is $US2.3 trillion.

Treasury Department officials, expecting that the President would sign the bill this week, had been planning to work through the Christmas holiday period to relaunch the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses and to push payments through direct deposit by early next week. However, that all now sits in limbo.

Congress and White House officials have indicated that they remain uncertain if Trump will relent and sign the legislation, issue a formal veto or just leave it unsigned. While Congress could potentially override Trump's veto, sitting on the bill — a so-called pocket veto — would require the next Congress to reintroduce and vote on the legislation early next year.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that she would hold a roll-call vote on Monday on direct payments legislation that would satisfy Trump's call for increased direct payments and put pressure on Republicans, who oppose payments that high. Congress could also be forced to pass another stop-gap spending measure to avoid a shutdown.

Official figures released this week revealed an additional 398,000 people filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, one of two federal programs to expand jobless benefits that will expire.

An analysis by the Century Foundation, a liberal policy research group, concluded that 12 million workers will lose unemployment benefits after they expire on the weekend.

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