Democrats ready to plow ahead on Covid relief

Democrats ready to plow ahead on Covid relief

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi will begin moving forward on a massive coronavirus package as soon as next week, with or without Republicans.

In separate remarks Thursday, the top two congressional Democrats said time is of the utmost importance as the virus continues to maintain its deadly — and potentially economically disastrous — grip on the U.S. Their actions come as moderates in both parties insist a bipartisan deal is still within reach, despite vast differences on the scope and cost of the next coronavirus relief package.

“We want it to be bipartisan always but we can’t surrender if they’re not going to be doing that,” Pelosi told reporters at her weekly press conference. “We cannot not have it happen, we have to act.”

Schumer said earlier Thursday morning that “only big bold action is called for,” given the slowdown in the economy. President Joe Biden has pitched a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan that would also raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, a package that most Republicans have already rejected.

Senate Democrats spoke with top Biden administration officials on Thursday about the path forward. No final decision was made about whether to settle on a party-line bill or continue and try and recruit at least 10 GOP senators to join them, sources familiar with the call said.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a close Biden ally said the call — held with Brian Deese, head of the White House National Economic Council, and Jeff Zients, Biden’s coronavirus coordinator — focused in large part on vaccines.

“The main thing is vaccination. We had a miserable start,” Carper said afterward. “I reminded folks … remember the three Ts: Timely, temporary and targeted.”

Senators and the administration also want to keep most of Biden’s package together rather than split it up.

“We’re not looking to split the package,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday afternoon. “We’re not going to do this in a piecemeal way.”

Centrist lawmakers in both chambers have maintained that a bipartisan deal is possible if congressional leadership will make space for one to be negotiated. But senior Democrats are increasingly dismissive of the possibility.

A bipartisan group of senators is continuing to meet, holding a discussion about coronavirus legislation on Thursday evening. And Biden has been doing his own one-on-one outreach to some moderate Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Republicans complained that Democratic leaders’ forceful reconciliation approach would only serve to short-circuit Biden’s bipartisan effort too soon.

“That would be a big mistake this early on. And I think they ought to attempt to try to do it the other way,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota.

But Schumer and Pelosi maintain they’re still hoping for a bipartisan deal that doesn’t require the use of reconciliation, although many Democrats are privately much more dismissive that will come together. Negotiators spent months haggling over the most recently passed $900 billion coronavirus relief package.

Pelosi said having reconciliation as a back-up plan will serve to force Republicans to the negotiating table if they want to participate.

“I do think we have more leverage getting cooperation on the other side if they know we have an alternative,” Pelosi said Thursday.

If they can keep party unity, Democrats can approve coronavirus legislation without GOP support via budget reconciliation. And Schumer gave some of his strongest indications yet that this could happen soon, starting with passage of a budget resolution that unlocks reconciliation’s power.

“The Senate, as early as next week, will begin the process of considering a very strong Covid relief bill. Our preference is to make this important work bipartisan, to include input, ideas and revisions from our Republican colleagues,” Schumer said. “But if our Republican colleagues decide to oppose this urgent and necessary legislation, we will have to move forward without them.”

Schumer also said that slashing the package in a major way isn’t going to happen, contending that “to cut things dramatically at a time when the economy needs a boost would be irresponsible.”

Pelosi later expanded on that timeline, telling reporters that the House will return next week to pass a budget resolution. That measure will then be sent to the Senate, likely amended, and return to the House by the end of the week.

House Democratic leaders announced further changes to the chambers’ calendar earlier this week to allow the reconciliation process to advance with the goal of getting a bill passed before unemployment benefits expire in mid-March.

After passing a budget resolution next week, House committees will have two weeks to mark up their parts of a major coronavirus package before the chamber returns Feb. 22 for a floor vote.

But Democrats across the ideological spectrum remain divided on the best way to address the coronavirus crisis, an early sign that even a massive partisan bill may be hard for Democratic leaders to pull off.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a leader in the bipartisan group of senators, said this when asked if he’d oppose a budget resolution setting up reconciliation: “We’re going to make Joe Biden successful.”

But Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, had a warning of her own Thursday, saying Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan was the “absolute floor” despite Republicans openly dismissing the total.

“The size of the package is critical for us, it cannot be watered down below $1.9 trillion,” Jayapal said Thursday. “We should be the wind behind the sails in helping our Democratic president to move forward with bold agenda that he’s outlined.”

Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report.

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