The White House and top Democratic lawmakers sparred Sunday over President Donald Trump’s executive orders to extend expired benefits to tens of millions of American workers left unemployed by the coronavirus pandemic and defer payroll taxes for many workers.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, called Trump’s action “meager, weak and unconstitutional” in an interview on the “Fox News Sunday” show.
She said it “will take a while to put money into the pockets of Americans” and again called for the White House to “meet us halfway” on new spending to assist the more than 30 million workers who remain unemployed and state and municipal governments that need more aid.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Trump’s orders on Saturday were “not his first choice,” but blamed Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer for the collapse of two weeks of talks on a coronavirus aid package.
“I’ve told them anytime they have a proposal, I’m willing to talk,” Mnuchin said. He said the White House is willing to provide more aid for state and local governments “but not a trillion dollars” that Democrats are seeking.
Schumer, on ABC’s “This Week” show, described Trump’s directives as "paltry," "unworkable," "weak" and "far too narrow" a solution to assist the flagging U.S. economy and the economic needs of millions of out-of-work Americans.
"The event at the country club is just what Trump does — a big show, but it doesn't do anything," Schumer said. "If the American people look at these executive orders, they'll see that they don't come close to doing the job."
In the fruitless negotiations, Democrats sought to extend the $600-a-week federal government boost to less generous state unemployment benefits through the end of 2020 after they expired at the end of July. Trump cut the figure to $400 and said states should pay $100 of that amount.
“States don’t have the money to do that,” Pelosi said. Mnuchin countered that the states do have such funds “from money we already gave the states” from previous coronavirus aid legislation that has yet to be spent.
Trump and White House officials expect his orders will be contested in court suits since under U.S. law, Congress must approve spending legislation. It cannot be done by presidential fiat, although Mnuchin said Trump’s actions were cleared by his legal advisers.
Asked whether he considers the Trump orders legal, Schumer replied, "Well, you know, I'll leave that up to the attorneys. It doesn't do the job … it's not going to go into effect in most places for weeks or months because it's so put together in a crazy way."
He said the $600-a-week unemployment payments would have continued to "flow smoothly" had the president acted to continue them. Many Republican lawmakers have protested that the amount was too big, in many cases more than workers were being paid before they were laid off.
Pelosi told CNN, “We’re at a stalemate because Republicans have never understood the gravity... of the pandemic.”
The spread of the pandemic remains unchecked in the U.S. with the country’s number of confirmed cases topping 5 million on Sunday and the death toll more than 162,000. Both figures are the biggest national totals across the globe.
Trump signed his orders at a golf resort he owns in New Jersey and justified cutting the unemployment aid from $600 a week to $400.
"This is the money [unemployed workers] need, this is the money they want, this gives them an incentive to go back to work," Trump said.
But he left it up to the states to decide how much to actually send unemployed workers, so the benefits could be smaller still.
In one of the other orders, Trump suspended 7.65% payroll taxes for workers who make less than $100,000 a year through the end of 2020. Unemployed workers, who do not pay the tax because they aren’t collecting a paycheck, won’t benefit. The taxes are used to fund pensions and health care for older Americans. The money would need to be paid back eventually unless Congress acts to write off the deferred taxes.
"This fake tax cut would also be a big shock to workers who thought they were getting a tax cut when it was only a delay," said one Trump critic, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. "These workers would be hit with much bigger payments down the road."
Trump also said he was extending protections for tenants threatened with eviction and further delaying student loan payments and zero percent interest on federally financed loans.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Trump’s opponent in the Nov. 3 national election, called the orders a "series of half-baked measures" and accused Trump of putting Social Security pensions "at grave risk" by delaying the collection of payroll taxes that pay for the program.
However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Saturday, “Struggling Americans need action now. Since Democrats have sabotaged backroom talks with absurd demands that would not help working people, I support President Trump exploring his options to get unemployment benefits and other relief to the people who need them the most.”