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Where Do Things Stand With The $900 Billion COVID-19 Relief Bill?

NOEL KING, HOST:

It took Congress seven months to pass a COVID relief bill. It seemed like a done deal. It wasn't. President Trump had problems with the bill. The biggest was he wanted people to get larger direct payments - $2,000 instead of $600 - which is also what Democrats originally wanted. So yesterday they tried again to get it. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is with us to talk about what happened next. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So the president is currently at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. Has he said anything about the relief bill?

KEITH: No, he has not. As of last night, I was told the bill, as in the paper copy of the bill, was in the process of being delivered to the president in Florida. This person who is familiar with the process did not indicate how it was getting there, though I would like to imagine that Santa is just stashing all 5,000 pages under a tree in Mar-a-Lago.

KING: (Laughter).

KEITH: The president himself claims to be working tirelessly for the American people. His schedule says that he has many meetings and calls, though it doesn't outline what they are. He's been tweeting up a storm, and we have seen pictures of him golfing. In the tweets, he is talking about a lot of things but not this COVID bill, including really going after Republicans, saying that, you know, everyone he had been talking to said that they should be up in arms fighting for him and that they aren't. He complained that, you know, he helped them win reelection and they aren't helping him now.

KING: What is the Republican reaction to his demand for these $2,000 payments which Democrats have seized on like, yeah, we'd love it?

KEITH: Yeah, they're like, thank you very much. Let's do this. Republicans say, not so fast. You know, Democrats in the House brought up legislation yesterday through what is known as unanimous consent to try to pass these $2,000 direct payments that the president wanted. But with unanimous consent, everyone has to agree to it. And if one person objects, one member of Congress objects, then it doesn't pass. A Republican did object. Therefore, it didn't happen. House Democrats say they'll try again on Monday. But even if that bill passes in the House, Republican leadership in the Senate are saying there's no way that could get 60 votes; there's no way it could pass.

KING: So messy. Are Republicans who typically are pretty timid when it comes to the president and his anger - are they expressing any frustration, or are they just being quiet?

KEITH: They are being more expressive than usual. I will say that we haven't heard from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who President Trump has been tweeting about, not since McConnell tweeted a celebratory note three days ago saying that help was on the way immediately. Republican lawmakers have been expressing a combination of confusion, dismay, frustration, complaining that the president's team was involved in these negotiations and knew exactly what was happening with this legislation.

Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri is a member of the GOP leadership. He told reporters yesterday he had no idea what the president would ultimately do, whether he would sign or veto. But he thinks the president should sign it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROY BLUNT: If you start opening part of the bill up, it's hard to defend not opening the whole bill up. It took us a long time to get to where we are. I think reopening that bill would be a mistake.

KEITH: And he says that the president's unpredictability here is a distraction from what could be positive news about the COVID-19 vaccine process. Instead, everybody's talking about this.

KING: I mean, at the end of the day, this remains about the fact that millions of Americans are still struggling. So what does happen next?

KEITH: Right, and this is also attached to a government funding bill to keep the government funded and open through the end of September. So if the president doesn't sign this by Monday night, there could be a government shutdown in addition to all these benefits not coming through for people.

KING: NPR's Tamara Keith. Merry, messy Christmas, Tam.

KEITH: Indeed. You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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