US President Donald Trump late Tuesday (US time) threatened to torpedo the US Congress' massive Covid-19 relief package in the midst of a raging pandemic and deep economic uncertainty, suddenly demanding changes fellow Republicans have opposed.
Trump denounced the US$900 billion package as "a disgrace" in a video he tweeted out Tuesday night and suggested he may not sign the legislation. He called on lawmakers to increase direct payments for most Americans from US$600 to $2000 for individuals and $4000 for couples.
Railing against a range of provisions in the bill, including for foreign aid, he told lawmakers to "get rid of the wasteful and unnecessary items from this legislation and to send me a suitable bill".
Trump did not specifically vow to veto the bill, and there may be enough support for legislation in Congress to override him if he does. But if Trump were to upend the sprawling legislation, the consequences would be severe, including no federal aid to struggling Americans and small businesses, and no additional resources to help with vaccine distribution.
In addition, because lawmakers linked the pandemic relief bill to an overarching funding measure, the Government would shut down on December 29.
The relief package was part of a hard-fought compromise bill that includes US$1.4 trillion to fund government agencies through September and contains other end-of-session priorities such as money for cash-starved transit systems, an increase in food stamp benefits and about $4 billion to help other nations provide a Covid-19 vaccine for their people.
Lawmakers spent months in a stalemate over pandemic relief funds, even as Covid-19 cases soared across the country. Democrats had pushed for higher payments to Americans, but compromised with Republicans to allow a deal to proceed.
Following Trump's interjection, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi all but dared Trump's Republican allies in Congress to meet the President's demand for far higher payments.
"At last, the President has agreed to $2000. Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week by unanimous consent. Let's do it!," Pelosi said in a tweet. An aide said she would put the proposal forward Thursday for a vote.
Other Democratic lawmakers rushed to join her, challenging Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to accept Trump's demand.
Republicans have been reluctant to spend more on pandemic relief and only agreed to the big year-end package as time dwindled for a final deal.
Trump's call for changes to the legislation will test his sway with a Republican Party he has held tight control of throughout his presidency.
Several Senate Republicans, including McConnell, have begun to gingerly break with Trump and acknowledge his defeat to President-elect Joe Biden, a step Trump has refused to take.
Trump's threat to hold up the pandemic legislation could also complicate matters for Republicans in Georgia, where two runoff races to determine control of the Senate will be held in January.
Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler have been running as ardent supporters of Trump and will now face questions about whether they will back his call for more money for Americans or instead side with other Republicans in the Senate.
The Senate cleared the huge relief package by a 92-6 vote after the House approved it by another lopsided vote, 359-53. Those votes totals would be enough to override a presidential veto should Trump decide to take that step.
Earlier in the day, Biden said the package was far from perfect, "but it does provide vital relief at a critical time". He also said more relief would be needed in the months ahead.
"We have our first hint and glimpse of bipartisanship," Biden said. "In this election, the American people made it clear they want us to reach across the aisle and work together."