Donald Trump’s sudden demand for 2,000 dollar (£1,450) cheques for most Americans has been rejected by House Republicans as his haphazard actions throw a massive Covid relief and government funding bill into chaos.
The rare Christmas Eve session of the House lasted just minutes, with help for millions of Americans awaiting Mr Trump’s signature on the bill.
Unemployment benefits, eviction protections and other emergency aid, including smaller 600 dollar (£433) cheques, are at risk.
Mr Trump’s refusal of the 900 billion dollar package, which is linked to a 1.4 trillion dollar government funds bill, could spark a federal shutdown at midnight on Monday.
“We’re not going to let the government shut down, nor are we going to let the American people down,” said Democrat Steny Hoyer, the majority leader.
The optics appear terrible for Republicans, and the outgoing president, as the nation suffers through the worst holiday season many can remember.
Families are isolated under Covid-19 precautions and millions of American households are devastated without adequate income, food or shelter. The virus death toll of 327,000-plus is rising.
Mr Trump is ending his presidency much the way he started it — sowing confusion and reversing promises while contesting the election and courting a federal shutdown over demands his own party in Congress will not meet.
The congressional Republican leaders have been left almost speechless by Mr Trump’s year-end scorching of their work.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy helped negotiate the year-end deal, a prized bipartisan compromise, that won sweeping approval this week in the House and Senate after the White House assured Republican leaders that Mr Trump supported it.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin boasted that the 600 dollar cheques which all sides had agreed to for Americans would be in the post in a week.
Instead, Washington is now hurtling toward a crisis with Covid aid about to collapse, as the president is at his Mar-a-Lago club.
He has been lashing out at Republican leaders for refusing to join his efforts to overturn the election that Joe Biden won when the Electoral College votes are tallied in Congress on January 6.
“The best way out of this is for the president to sign the bill,” Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri said on Thursday. “And I still hope that’s what he decides.”
Racing to salvage the year-end legislation, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Mr Mnuchin are in talks on options.
Democrats will recall House lawmakers to Washington for a vote Monday on Trump’s proposal, with a roll call that would put all members on record as supporting or rejecting the 2,000 dollar cheques.
They are also considering a Monday vote on a stop-gap measure to at least avert a federal shutdown.
It would keep the government running until Mr Biden is inaugurated on January 20. Lawmakers will also be asked to override Mr Trump’s veto of a defence bill.
After presiding over the short House session, Democrat Debbie Dingell decried the possibility that the Covid assistance may collapse.
“It is Christmas Eve, but it is not a silent night. All is not calm. For too many, nothing is bright,” she said on Capitol Hill.
A town hall she hosted the night before “had people crying, people terrified of what is going to happen”, she said.
One father recently told her he had to tell his children there would be no Santa Claus this year.