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Trump Signs Pandemic Relief Bill. How Will The Package Help Americans?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Trump tried to stage a cliffhanger over the government's pandemic relief bill, but the ending turned out to be a bit anticlimactic. In the end, the president signed the $900 billion bill, but not before a delay that could prove costly for millions of jobless Americans. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now with more.

Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good evening.

CHANG: All right. So there were two emergency unemployment programs that expired this weekend before the president even decided to sign this relief bill. Can you just tell us what that means for people who are out of work now and who have been relying on this aid?

HORSLEY: Well, it could mean an interruption in their jobless benefits for the millions of people who can least afford it. The two programs we're talking about here cover gig workers and the self-employed, as well as those who have exhausted their ordinary state unemployment benefits, which typically last just six months. Obviously, the pandemic's been dragging on a lot longer than that.

It may take some time to restart those programs, although some states are now saying they'll keep making payments with no interruption. The president's foot-dragging is also likely to affect the supplemental unemployment benefits in this relief package that are worth $300 a week. People who are unemployed will likely get that extra money for just 10 weeks now instead of 11.

And I talked to Kris Snyder. She's a musician in Pennsylvania who used to perform at nursing homes until the pandemic made that impossible. And she told me it's been really frustrating watching this aid package take so long to come into effect. And her blood pressure really soared last week as she watched the president's actions.

KRIS SNYDER: At this point, I really feel like all the politicians are grandstanding and forgetting that real people are being hurt. I'm fortunate. I still have a roof over my head. I still have food. And there are people that are still in danger of losing their homes.

HORSLEY: Like a lot of people, Snyder is anxious to get the COVID vaccine and get back to working the way she used to. But she's really uncertain how long that's going to take, and she's nervous about paying the bills in the meantime.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, this bill does provide direct $600 payments to most Americans. And that was President Trump's biggest complaint, right? Like, he demanded bigger payments of $2,000, but then he backtracked. Can you just explain what happened there?

HORSLEY: Yeah, the president evidently thought he could play Santa Claus by demanding $2,000 payments, but he was in danger of looking like the Grinch, destroying not only the relief package, but the larger government spending bill it was attached to. And that might've led to a government shutdown right in the middle of winter and with coronavirus infections raging out of control. Republican Senator Pat Toomey warned yesterday that in his effort to be remembered as a guy who demanded more generous checks, Trump was instead at risk of winding up remembered as the guy who brought chaos and misery.

So ultimately, the president blinked. He signed the bill at his private resort in Florida last night. Trump insisted he'd won some important concessions during the process, but that was just a fig leaf. This is, in effect, the bill that Congress negotiated while the president was preoccupied with the lost election.

CHANG: Well, can you tell us - what else does this bill do for families and for businesses that are struggling right now?

HORSLEY: Well, there are those one-time payments of $600. That's going to go to everyone making up to $75,000. And people who make between 75- and $99,000 will get a little less than that. The Treasury Department expects to start making those payments via direct deposit as early as this week. There is also a new round of forgivable loans to small businesses. There's more money for food stamps. There's money to help distribute the new vaccines.

And one of the really important pieces in this bill is that extra 300 bucks a week in supplemental unemployment benefits. Now, that's only half what the federal government was paying back in the spring and early summer, but it's still a big boost for people like Nick Mancuso, who lost his job with a metal fabricating company back in March.

NICK MANCUSO: It makes a difference. You know, we've been sitting around just on the basic 270 bucks that they give you in New York. And it's - that's kind of hard to do. It helps a lot, you know? It's better than nothing. That's for sure.

HORSLEY: Mancuso's got another rent payment due next week. And he's having to contend with a cold and snowy winter in upstate New York where he lives. Now, they got about three feet of snow just before Christmas, and he's counting himself lucky that the electric company is not going to cut off his heat.

CHANG: Yeah. That is NPR's Scott Horsley.

Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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