Biden agrees to meeting with GOP senators on Covid relief
President Joe Biden has agreed to hear out a group of Republicans senators who made a last-ditch effort Sunday to engage him on the next coronavirus relief package.
After 10 Republican senators requested a meeting with Biden to begin bipartisan negotiations on the next coronavirus relief bill, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Sunday night that the president had agreed to their ask. Biden spoke to Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) “and invited her and other signers of the letter to come to the White House early this week for a full exchange of views,” Psaki said.
Democratic leaders have been preparing this week to go down a path that could pass a new $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package with all Democratic votes. Republicans are trying to turn Biden away from a party-line approach that would avoid the Senate’s supermajority requirement. But the gap is yawning: The GOP package would be roughly a third the size of Biden’s proposal, one GOP senator said Sunday.
Psaki said that Biden had also spoken to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and that Biden is “grateful that Congress is prepared to begin action on the American Rescue Plan in just his second full week in office.” She indicated the president has not changed his approach despite the GOP intervention.
“With the virus posing a grave threat to the country, and economic conditions grim for so many, the need for action is urgent, and the scale of what must be done is large,” Psaki said, calling Biden’s relief pacakge “badly needed.”
In a letter to Biden sent on Sunday, the 10 Senate Republicans informed the president that they are working on a counterproposal focusing on spending $160 billion on vaccines, testing, treatment and personal protective equipment. Led by Collins, the senators said that if Biden signs off on their framework, “we believe that this plan could be approved quickly by Congress with bipartisan support.”
“In the spirit of bipartisanship and unity, we have developed a COVID-19 relief framework that builds on prior COVID assistance laws, all of which passed with bipartisan support,” the senators wrote to Biden. “We request the opportunity to meet with you to discuss our proposal in greater detail and how we can work together to meet the needs of the American people during this persistent pandemic.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a member of the group, estimated the legislation would cost roughly $600 billion. Senate Republicans contend there are hundreds of billions of dollars left over from previous bills, undercutting the need for the amount proposed by Biden.
“If you want unity, you want bipartisanship, you ought to start with the group that’s willing to work together,” Cassidy said on “Fox News Sunday.” “They did not.”
The letter is a clear attempt to head off Democratic efforts to pursue budget reconciliation as the pathway to the next round of coronavirus aid. This week, Democrats in both chambers are planning to pass budget resolutions allowing the party to approve Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus plan without GOP votes. That tactic, called budget reconciliation, would allow Democrats and Biden to move more quickly than trying to cut a deal with Republicans that can get 60 votes.
Noting the failings of the government response to the last economic crisis in 2009 and the GOP reluctance to spend money, White House officials and Democratic senators contend that the biggest risk at the moment is not going big enough.
Biden “is absolutely willing to negotiate,” said Jared Bernstein, a top Biden economic adviser, on “Fox News Sunday.” But, he added: “The cost of inaction is extremely high.”
Still, that path has little room for error: All 50 Senate Democrats would need to be on board, and House leaders could afford few defections. And Republicans in a bipartisan negotiating group have urged Biden to squash the effort to move forward without them, though Democrats are skeptical they will ever come on board with the large spending plan they say is needed to revive the economy.
Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, spoke to the Senate Democratic Caucus last week and has been engaged directly with members of both parties. He said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” he would continue doing that and that the president’s open to compromise: “What he’s uncompromising about is the need to move with speed on a comprehensive approach here.”
The Republican senators will release more details of their plan Monday, according to a Republican aide. Sunday’s letter indicated the proposal will also extend unemployment benefits that expire in March, match Biden’s request for nutrition assistance and send a new round of payments to “those families who need assistance the most, including their dependent children and adults.” It will also address child care, small business aid and school funding.
Republicans and some Democrats have complained that high-earning people would be eligible for the next round of $1,400 payments under Biden’s plan. And no Republicans have indicated even tepid support for Biden’s $1.9 trillion top-line spending number. That’s led Pelosi and Schumer to say they will move forward if Republicans are an obstacle to their plan.
In addition to Collins and Cassidy, the letter was signed by GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Rob Portman of Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Todd Young of Indiana, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Mike Rounds of South Dakota. They say that if Biden is willing to hear them out, Congress doesn’t have to pass a partisan coronavirus bill.
“In 2020, members of the House and Senate and the previous administration came together on a bipartisan basis five times,” they wrote on Sunday. “With your support, we believe Congress can once again craft a relief package that will provide meaningful, effective assistance to the American people and set us on a path to recovery.”