Unemployment benefits for millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet are set to lapse at midnight tonight (US time) unless US President Donald Trump signs an end-of-year Covid relief and spending bill that had been considered a done deal before his sudden objections.
Trump's refusal to sign the bipartisan package as he demands larger Covid relief payments and complains about wasteful spending could also force a federal government shutdown when money runs out at 12.01 Tuesday in the middle of a pandemic.
"It's a chess game and we are pawns," said Lanetris Haines, a self-employed single mother of three in South Bend, Indiana, who stands to lose her US$129 ($180) weekly jobless benefit unless Trump signs the package into law or succeeds in his improbable quest for changes.
Washington has been reeling since Trump threw the package into limbo after it had already won sweeping approval in both chambers of the US Congress and after the White House assured Republican leaders that Trump would support it.
Instead, he has assailed the bill's plan to provide US$600 ($840) relief payments to most Americans — insisting it should be US$2000 ($2800).
House Republicans swiftly rejected that idea during a rare Christmas Eve session. But Trump has not budged.
US President-elect Joe Biden called on Trump to sign the bill immediately as two federal programmes providing unemployment aid are set to expire.
"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".
"I've been talking to people who are scared they're going to be kicked out from their homes, during the Christmas holidays, and still might be if we don't sign this bill," said Democrat Debbie Dingell.
Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, has calculated that 11 million people would lose aid from the programmes immediately without additional relief; millions more would exhaust other unemployment benefits within weeks.
While payments could be received retroactively, any gap means more hardship and uncertainty for Americans who have already grappled with bureaucratic delays, often depleting much of their savings to stay afloat while waiting for payments to kick in.
Trump, meanwhile, has been spending his final days in office golfing and angrily tweeting as he refuses to accept his loss to Biden in the November 3 election.
Today he again lashed out at members of his own party for failing to join his quest to try to overturn the results of the election with baseless claims of mass voter fraud that have been repeatedly rejected by the courts.
"If a Democrat Presidential Candidate had an Election Rigged & Stolen, with proof of such acts at a level never seen before, the Democrat Senators would consider it an act of war, and fight to the death," he railed. He said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republicans "just want to let it pass. NO FIGHT!"
The President seemed to encourage his supporters to gather in Washington DC on January 6, the day Congress tallies the Electoral College vote — even though a similar event last month devolved into violence, with multiple people being stabbed in the capital's streets.
In addition to freezing unemployment benefits, Trump's lack of action on the bill would lead to the expiration of eviction protections and put on hold a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theatres, along with money to help schools and vaccine distribution.
The relief is also attached to a US$1.4 trillion government funding bill to keep the federal government operating.