Biden meets Republicans on virus aid, but no quick deal

·6 min read

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden met for two hours late Monday with a group of Republican senators who have proposed a slimmed down $618 billion coronavirus aid package that is only a fraction of the $1.9 trillion he is seeking. Skeptical Democrats vowed to push ahead in Congress with or without GOP support.

No compromise was reached from the lengthy session, Biden's first with lawmakers at the White House. But the Republicans said there was agreement to keep discussions going over their smaller, more targeted package that would do away with Democratic priorities but might win GOP support and appeal to Biden's hopes to unify the country.

“All of us are concerned about struggling families, teetering small businesses and an overwhelmed health care system,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a leader of the effort, flanked by the other GOP senators outside the White House.

She called it a "frank and very useful" conversation, noting that the president also filled in some details on his proposal.

The two sides are wide apart, with Republicans focused primarily on the health care crisis, tapping into bipartisan urgency to shore up the nation's vaccine distribution and vastly expand virus testing with $160 billion in aid. That is similar to what Biden has proposed. But from there, the two plans drastically diverge. With less economic aid, the GOP's $1,000 direct payments would go to fewer households than the $1,400 Biden has proposed, and the Republicans offer only a fraction of what he wants to reopen schools.

They also would give nothing to states, money that Democrats argue is just as important, with $350 billion in Biden's plan to keep police, fire and other workers on the job.

Gone are Democratic priorities such as a gradual lifting of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Wary Democrats pushed ahead at the Capitol despite the high-profile White House talks, unwilling to take too much time courting GOP support that may not materialize or delivering too meagre a package that they believe doesn't address the scope of the nation's pandemic crisis and economic problems.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer warned that history is filled with “the costs of small thinking.”

House and Senate Democrats released a separate budget resolution Monday, a first step laying the groundwork for approving Biden’s package with a “budget reconciliation” process that won’t depend on Republican support for passage.

“The cost of inaction is high and growing, and the time for decisive action is now," Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

The goal is for approval of COVID relief by March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid expires.

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 in echoes of the 2009 financial crisis, Democrats warn against crafting too small a package as they believe happened during the Obama administration as the government tried to pull the nation toward recovery.

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.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there is “obviously a big gap” between the $1.9 trillion package Biden has proposed and the $618 billion counteroffer.

Psaki said Monday that the meeting with Republican lawmakers would be an “exchange of ideas” but Biden would reiterate his stance that “the risk is not that it is too big, this package, the risk is that it is too small.”

An invitation to the GOP senators to meet at the White House came hours after the lawmakers sent Biden a letter on Sunday urging him to negotiate rather than try to ram through his relief package solely on Democratic votes.

“We share many of your priorities,” the senators wrote releasing their plan.

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 to Biden's plan but at far lesser amounts, including $20 billion to reopen schools compared to $170 billion. The Republicans offer $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 was Biden's most public involvement in the negotiations.

Winning the support of 10 Republicans would be significant for Biden, potentially giving him the votes needed in the 50-50 Senate where Vice-President Kamala Harris is the tie-breaker. The more liberal wing of his party wants to push the relief package the reconciliation process, which would allow the bill to pass with a 51-vote majority in the Senate, rather than the 60 votes typically needed to advance.

The White House remains committed to exploring avenues for bipartisanship even as it prepares for Democrats to move alone on a COVID relief bill, according to a senior administration official granted anonymity to discuss the private thinking.

However, the number being brought to the table by Republicans was viewed as too small, according to the official.

At the same time, the White House may be willing to adjust its ask, perhaps shifting some less virus-oriented aspects into a subsequent package that is set to go next before Congress, the official said.

Biden himself has been on the phone to some of the Republicans coming to the White House on Monday and more in-person outreach is expected in the days ahead, the official said.

The other GOP senators meeting with Biden were Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Todd Young of Indiana, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Rob Portman of Ohio and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota joined by phone.

Biden has leaned on his resume of decades in the Senate and as vice-president to bring the parties together, but less than two weeks into his presidency, Biden has shown frustration with the pace of negotiations as applications for jobless benefits remain stubbornly high and COVID death toll nears 450,000 Americans.

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Associated Press writers Alexandra Jaffe, Darlene Superville and Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.

Lisa Mascaro, Josh Boak And Jonathan Lemire, The Associated Press