President Joe Biden met Monday with a group of 10 Republican senators who have proposed $618 billion in coronavirus aid, about a third of the $1.9 trillion he is seeking as congressional Democrats are poised to move ahead without GOP support.
What You Need To Know
- President Biden met Monday with a group of 10 Republican senators who have proposed $618 billion in coronavirus aid, about a third of the $1.9 trillion he is seeking
- An invitation to the GOP senators to meet at the White House came hours after the lawmakers sent Biden a letter Sunday urging him to negotiate rather than try to ram through his relief package solely on Democratic votes
- Democrats in Congress have begun moving ahead with filing a joint budget resolution to pass using the reconciliation process, which would mean it would not require Republican support
- White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden is open to exchanging ideas with members of both parties, but she indicated the president is unlikely to significantly lower the overall price tag of his proposal
Nine of the senators met with Biden at the White House; Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota participated via telephone, according to a pool report.
"Thanks for coming down," Biden said to Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), "I'm anxious for it - to talk," joking that it makes him feel like he's back in the Senate.
The meeting was originally set to take place over the course of an hour, but the GOP senators met with the president for over double their scheduled time. Upon exiting the White House, Sen. Collins said the group had a "very good exchange of views" with the president and his staff.
"We have just had a very productive, cordial two hour meeting with the president and the vice president and some of their key aides to discuss the next steps on the COVID relief package," Collins told reporters Monday night, thanking Biden for spending so much time with the Republican senators during his first official meeting in the Oval Office.
Despite the meeting's success, Collins clarified she "wouldnt say we came together on a package," adding that "no one expected" a fully fleshed-out deal within a two-hour time span.
"We agreed to follow up and talk further at the staff level and amongst ourselves … on how we can continue to work together on this very important issue," Collins said. Democrats and Republicans can find common ground on issues like helping struggling families, supporting small businesses, and ramping up vaccine production, she said.
But Democrats continue to move quickly on getting Biden's relief full measure passed despite the scaled-down GOP proposal.
Speaking on the floor of the Senate on Monday, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have filed a joint budget resolution to pass using the reconciliation process.
The reconciliation process allows for certain budgetary measures can pass through the legislature using a simple 51-vote majority, rather than the 60 votes typically needed to advance.
This isn't an unprecedented move – Congressional Republicans utilized the reconciliation process to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, former president Donald Trump's signature legislative achievement.
"Congress must pursue a bold and robust course of action. It makes no sense to pinch pennies," Schumer said, adding that "there is nothing in this process that will preclude it from being bipartisan. We welcome Republican input."
"We cannot repeat the mistake of 2009 and we must act very soon," Schumer said, recalling the federal government's response to the 2009 financial crisis, warning Congress not to be "too timid."
The Republican group's proposal focuses on the pandemic's health effects rather than its economic toll, tapping into bipartisan urgency to shore up the nation's vaccine distribution and vastly expanding virus testing with $160 billion in aid. Their slimmed down $1,000 direct payments would go to fewer households than the $1,400 Biden has proposed, and they would avoid costly assistance to states and cities that Democrats argue are just as important.
Gone are Democratic priorities such as a gradual lifting of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Engaging the White House in high-profile bipartisan talks is certain to appeal to Biden's wish to unify the nation. But it may stall the Democrats' rush to roll out their broader budget resolutions for House and Senate votes as soon as this week as they lay the groundwork for approving a COVID relief bill with their new majority in Congress.
The goal is for COVID passage by March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid expires.
“We recognize your calls for unity and want to work in good faith with your Administration to meet the health, economic, and societal challenges of the COVID crisis,” the 10 GOP senators wrote to Biden. “We share many of your priorities.”
The overture from the coalition of 10 GOP senators, mostly centrists, is an attempt to show that at least some in the Republican ranks want to work with Biden's new administration, rather than simply operating as the opposition in the minority in Congress. But Democrats are wary of using too much time courting GOP support that may not materialize or deliver too meager a package as they believe happened during the 2009 recovery.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that Biden is open to exchanging ideas with members of both parties, but she indicated the president is unlikely to significantly lower the overall price tag of his proposal.
“It’s important to remember that the size of the package was designed with the size of the crisis” in mind, she said.
“The risk is not that it’s too big [with] this package,” Psaki added. “This risk is that it is too small.”
Psaki added that Biden does not view Monday’s meeting as a forum to make or an accept an offer.
The accelerating talks came as the Congressional Budget Office delivered mixed economic forecasts Monday with robust growth expected at a 4.5% annual rate but employment rates not to return to pre-pandemic levels for several years.
“We all want bipartisanship,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said Sunday. “But right now this country faces an unprecedented set of crises. ... We have got to act, and we have got to act now.”
An invitation to the GOP senators to meet at the White House came hours after the lawmakers sent Biden a letter Sunday urging him to negotiate rather than try to ram through his relief package solely on Democratic votes.
The cornerstone of the GOP plan is $160 billion for the health care response — vaccine distribution, a “massive expansion” of testing, protective gear and funds for rural hospitals, according to a draft.
Other elements of the package are similar but at far lesser amounts, with $20 billion to reopen schools and $40 billion for Paycheck Protection Program business aid.
Under the GOP proposal, $1,000 direct payments would go to individuals earning up to $40,000 a year, or $80,000 for couples. The proposal would begin to phase out the benefit after that, with no payments for individuals earning more than $50,000, or $100,000 for couples. That’s less than Biden’s proposal of $1,400 direct payments at higher incomes levels.
With Biden's plan, the direct payments would be phased out at higher income levels, and families with incomes up to $300,000 could receive some stimulus money.
The meeting to be hosted by Biden would amount to the most public involvement for the president in the negotiations for the next round of virus relief.
Psaki said that while Biden wants “a full exchange of views," the president remains in favor of moving forward with the bigger relief package.
“It’s incredibly urgent,” she said. “There are timelines coming up … of when the Americans who are applying for unemployment insurance will no longer be able to get access. As I noted earlier, one in seven American families can’t put food on the table. We need to plan for how we’re going to get more vaccines into the arms of Americans. We need to have funding to help public school have the preparations needed to reopen.”
Winning the support of 10 Republicans would be significant for Biden in the 50-50 Senate where Vice President Kamala Harris is the tiebreaker. If all Democrats were to back an eventual compromise bill, the legislation would reach the 60-vote threshold necessary to overcome potential blocking efforts and pass under regular Senate procedures.
“If you can't find bipartisan compromise on COVID-19, I don't know where you can find it,” said Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who also signed the letter.
But even as Biden extended the invitation to the Republican lawmakers, Psaki said that $1,400 relief checks, substantial funding for reopening schools, aid to small businesses and hurting families, and more is badly needed. She said Biden is hopeful that a bill in the range of the $1.9 trillion he has proposed can receive bipartisan support.
“The president is confident that issues like reopening schools getting shots in the arms of Americans, ensuring people have enough food to eat are not just Democratic issues,” Psaki said. “He takes his former Republican colleagues at their word, of course, that they’re committed to these issues, too.”
Biden also spoke Sunday with Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer, who are facing pressure from the more liberal Democratic members to move forward with Biden's legislation with or without Republican support.
The other GOP senators invited to meet with Biden are Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Todd Young of Indiana, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
Brian Deese, the top White House economic adviser leading the administration’s outreach to Congress, indicated the White House could be open to negotiating on further limiting who would receive stimulus checks.
“That is certainly a place that we’re willing to sit down and think about, are there ways to make the entire package more effective?” Deese said.
As a candidate, Biden said his decades in the Senate and his eight years as Barack Obama's vice president give him credibility as a dealmaker and would help him bring Republicans and Democrats to consensus on the most important matters facing the country.
But less than two weeks into his presidency, Biden has shown frustration with the pace of negotiations at a time when the economy is showing further evidence of wear from the pandemic. Last week, 847,000 Americans applied for unemployment benefits, a sign that layoffs remain high as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage.