Trump’s threats to massive spending bill spoil Christmas break

President could veto both omnibus spending package and defense bill

Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley says a Trump veto of the aid package would hurt farmers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley says a Trump veto of the aid package would hurt farmers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 23, 2020 at 12:06pm, Updated at 5:17pm

President Donald Trump’s Tuesday night broadside against provisions in the recently passed omnibus spending and coronavirus aid package has upended lawmakers’ normally placid winter holidays, with not one but two potential veto overrides on the docket.

Trump needs to decide Wednesday whether to formally veto the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill or sign it or allow it to become law without his signature. The timing for the catch-all tax and spending package is much more complicated, because it could fail to become law due to a pocket veto.

In a video message Tuesday, Trump called for larger direct payments to individuals than the $600 checks provided in the relief bill, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats say they agree.

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Pelosi tweeted that the House could pass a bill boosting the checks’ size to $2,000 by unanimous consent on Christmas Eve during the chamber’s pro forma session. But that would require House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to agree and no other lawmaker in town to object.

On a conference call with House Republicans on Wednesday, McCarthy said he won't approve Democrats' unanimous consent request on the direct payments bill, according to a source on the call who asked for anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Instead McCarthy is likely to offer his own UC request related to spending in the omnibus that Trump complained was wasteful. Democrats are unlikely to agree to that request.

Procedurally when both party leaders have not agreed in advance to allow a UC request, once the motion is made on the floor the chair will rule they are constrained from entertaining it.

'Sphinx-like silence'

Pelosi told colleagues in a Wednesday morning letter that throughout the negotiations, Democrats have been willing to provide larger payments to households. Negotiators arrived at the lower $600 figure after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin proposed it; Republicans made clear their ceiling on the overall relief package was around $900 billion, precluding larger checks.

“In the bipartisan negotiations, [Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer] and I repeatedly asked Republicans what would be the highest number the President would accept for direct payments, and they responded with Sphinx-like silence,” Pelosi wrote to House Democrats. “In the negotiations, they would never go above $600 and in some cases, proposed $500.”

Another issue with the direct payments Trump raised in his Tuesday night video was checks going to married couples with mixed immigration status. The final bill would give these households — where one spouse has a Social Security Number but the other doesn’t — access to the earlier $1,200 round of tax rebates distributed under the March aid package, as well as the new $600 checks, for a total of $1,800.

“The bill also allows stimulus checks for the family members of illegal aliens, allowing them to get up to $1,800 each,” Trump said in his video. “This is far more than the Americans are given.”

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the president would be willing to sign legislation with the higher dollar amounts if immigrants without legal status were still to receive payments.

The immediate focus is on making sure a partial government shutdown doesn’t occur after midnight Dec. 28, when the latest stopgap funding resolution expires.

The surest bet to avoid that is for Trump to sign the omnibus before then rather than have to deal with the chaos that could come with two veto overrides in the last week of the session. Trump didn’t use the term “veto” in his Tuesday night video address, but he called the package a “disgrace” and said the next administration may need to sign any new coronavirus relief package.

McCarthy told House Republicans on their Wednesday conference call that Trump hasn't said whether he'll actually veto the bill, according to the source on the call.

Trump could decide to veto the $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill and underlying $1.4 trillion fiscal 2021 appropriations package through the traditional method, returning the papers to Capitol Hill for a late-session override.

“In order to keep government from shutting down, I’ve already been notified of the possibility of going back into session to override this veto,” Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley told reporters Wednesday morning. “If he does veto it, I’m going to have to go back to Washington much earlier than I anticipated because I wasn’t hoping to go back until New Year’s Day.”

The Iowa Republican noted that there were already plans to return to override a defense policy bill veto, “and we’ll know by midnight” if that veto occurs.

Grassley spokesman Michael Zona later clarified that the veto notification at this point was just for the defense bill but that the same veto override date could be used for the appropriations and virus aid package.

Grassley added, “I hope he doesn’t veto it,” while pointing out that farmers who backed Trump in two elections would miss out on $13 billion in agricultural support in the relief package.

Timing complications

If the president were to veto both measures, the timeline for consideration of the veto messages could get complicated. The House is already scheduled to be back on Dec. 28, to override a defense bill veto if necessary. The chamber presumably could also have the Rules Committee set up a process to quickly dispense with a potential spending package veto.

A so-called pocket veto takes place when the president withholds his approval of legislation presented to him and Congress adjourns during the 10-day window that the president has to decide on a veto. When Congress has adjourned, there is no way for the executive branch to return the bill, so it does not become law. The 10-day window does not include Sundays.

The formal enrollment of the spending package is not expected to be completed until Thursday or Friday, putting the measure well within the danger zone for a pocket veto when the 116th Congress comes to an end at noon on Jan. 3.

Lindsey McPherson and Doug Sword contributed to this report.