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Coronavirus: US jobless benefits expire as Trump refuses to sign COVID aid bill

26.12.2020

Fourteen million Americans have had their unemployment benefits cut after Donald Trump refused to sign the latest COVID relief package. The delay could also mean a third government shutdown during Trump's presidency.

Millions of Americans saw their unemployment benefits expire on Saturday after outgoing US President Donald Trump refused to sign a $2.3-trillion (€1.9 trillion) coronavirus pandemic aid and spending package.

Trump stunned both Democrats and Republicans when he rejected the bipartisan $892-billion pandemic aid package earlier this week.  The deal would have extended special unemployment benefits that expired on Saturday for 14 million people, according to the US Labor Department.

The relief package is tied with a $1.4 trillion government spending deal. Without Trump's signature, a partial government shutdown will begin on Tuesday unless US Congress can agree to a stop-gap funding bill.

President-elect Joe Biden called on Trump to sign the bill immediately. "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."

"In just a few days, government funding will expire, putting vital services and paychecks for military personnel at risk," Biden warned. Following his inauguration on January 20, Biden also plans to push for another stimulus package to contain the pandemic and boost the economy.

Trump's refusal to sign the bill into law threatens to undo months of wrangling between Republicans and Democrats. The two sides agreed to the spending package last weekend, and Congress voted the deal through on Monday night.

Why hasn't Trump signed the COVID relief bill?

Trump, who will leave the White House on January 20, did not object to the terms of the deal ahead of Monday's vote. But he called the legislation a "disgrace" a day after it passed both chambers of Congress, saying it didn't do enough for everyday people.

Trump has demanded its one-time $600 stimulus checks to millions of Americans be raised to $2,000 — an idea that some Democrats have supported, but one that was swiftly rejected by House Republicans during a rare Christmas Eve session. He has also complained that the bill gives too much money to special interests, cultural projects and foreign aid.

Trump tweeted on Friday that he spoke with many US politicians from his Mar-a-Lago resort on Christmas Day, saying that they should "give our people the money."

What happens if he doesn't sign the spending bill?

Despite his complaints, Trump has yet to veto the bill and could still sign it before Monday.

Congress could potentially override the president's veto, salvaging months of negotiations and putting the coronavirus relief in place. Even if Trump doesn't formally veto the package, he could allow it to expire with a "pocket veto" at the end of the congressional session, leaving the next Congress to reintroduce the vote on its legislative agenda.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she would hold a roll-call vote on Monday on direct payment legislation to satisfy Trump's demand, applying pressure on Republicans who opposed the higher stimulus checks.

Trump's decision to leave the bill unsigned has not only halted the extra unemployment benefits. The coronavirus relief bill would also provide funding for US states to distribute vaccines, replenish a loan program for small businesses and provide relief funds for airlines.

Wuhan: A year after the coronavirus outbreak
Dancing in the streets

During the lockdown, residents were not even allowed to leave their homes. Now, they can even dance together in the park. According to the Reuters news agency, there have been no local transmissions of the virus for months now.

Wuhan: A year after the coronavirus outbreak
Restaurateurs' livelihoods at risk

Before the pandemic, Lai Yun used to find most of the products for his Japanese restaurant at the covered market. "I would send the kids to school, have breakfast and then go to the market," says the 38-year-old. Since re-opening in June, he has to go elsewhere — and some of the ingredients he needs now cost five times more. "Our aim for next year is simply to survive," he told DW.

Wuhan: A year after the coronavirus outbreak
No more fresh goods

Though the wet market on the ground floor is still closed, the second floor has re-opened. But most of the stores sell glasses and other specialty products for opticians. "Some people might have a weird feeling, but it's only an empty building now," one of the saleswomen, who did not give her name, told DW.

Wuhan: A year after the coronavirus outbreak
Vendors move to the streets

Since the market closed down, some people have started selling meat and other fresh goods on the streets. Even if the sellers here are wearing masks and gloves, some say the conditions fall short of certain hygiene standards. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the covered market hall was criticized for its poor health and sanitation regulations.

Wuhan: A year after the coronavirus outbreak
An unmasked clown

Most Wuhan residents wear masks in public, particularly as the coronavirus has not disappeared and there have been a number of new cases elsewhere in China. "Many people are beginning to hoard masks, disinfectant and other protective equipment," 29-year-old English teacher Yen told DW.

Wuhan: A year after the coronavirus outbreak
Ground zero for the coronavirus?

Vegetables, fish, and meat — even wild animals — all used to be for sale at this wet market. But it closed its doors on January 1, 2020 after a mysterious lung disease started spreading and its origin was traced to the market. Scientists have not yet determined the market's exact role in spreading the virus, if it had one at all.

Wuhan: A year after the coronavirus outbreak
Shoulder to shoulder in crowded markets

Wuhan was locked down for about 11 weeks after becoming the first global coronavirus hot spot. Until mid-May, 50,000 of the 80,000 official cases in China were in Wuhan. But now life is almost back to normal on the city's crowded street markets.

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This story has been updated to reflect the latest developments.

dv, sri/mm (AP, Reuters)