WASHINGTON — President Biden had an Oval Office meeting on Monday with a group of Republican senators who urged him to accept their proposal for a $600 billion COVID relief package that is far smaller than the $1.9 trillion version he has proposed.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, spoke on behalf of her colleagues when they left the West Wing of the White House after spending two hours with Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and top aides.
“I think it was an excellent meeting and we’re very appreciative that, as his first official meeting in the Oval Office, the president chose to spend so much time with us in a frank and very useful discussion,” Collins said.
While conceding that no deal was reached between the two parties, Collins indicated that she hopes dialogue will continue.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki subsequently released a statement in which she described the talks as “substantive and productive” while also indicating that a compromise has yet to be reached.
“While there were areas of agreement, the President also reiterated his view that Congress must respond boldly and urgently, and noted many areas which the Republican senators’ proposal does not address,” Psaki said.
Biden has pursued an aggressive response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic since taking office last month. His proposed rescue plan includes funding for vaccine efforts, financial relief for struggling U.S. cities and $1,400 stimulus checks for some Americans.
Before Monday’s meeting began, Biden emphasized his own experience in the Senate, where he represented Delaware for over three decades.
“Thanks for coming down,” Biden said to the Republican senators during a brief press availability before the meeting began. “I’m anxious for us to talk, see what we can do. I feel like I’m back in the Senate, which I liked the best of everything I did.”
Biden does not necessarily need Republican support for his rescue plan. If all 50 Senate Democrats were united on a bill, they would be able to pass it through a process called reconciliation, using Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a tie-breaking vote. But that move carries political risks as it would automatically trigger cuts to Medicare because of the passage of the Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010. Under that law, any new law that causes the national debt to rise results in offsetting spending cuts to entitlement programs.
In addition to the more than 443,000 deaths in the U.S., the pandemic has shuttered many businesses and led to record unemployment. On Monday, Psaki noted both the dire circumstances of the meeting between the president and the GOP senators as well as the potential for Democrats to pass Biden’s proposal through reconciliation.
“He reiterated that while he is hopeful that the rescue plan can pass with bipartisan support, a reconciliation package is a path to achieve that end,” Psaki said of Biden. “The President also made clear that the American Rescue Plan was carefully designed to meet the stakes of this moment, and any changes in it cannot leave the nation short of its pressing needs.”
The group of 10 senators who participated in the meeting included Republicans who are seen as moderates in the party, including Collins, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. Major differences between their proposal and Biden’s plan include a lack of funding for state and local governments and a reduction in federal unemployment insurance, both in length (June in the GOP proposal versus September) and amount ($300 per week versus $400). The Republican proposal would also strip out a part of Biden’s plan that would eventually increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour and reduce both the amount and the number of people receiving additional stimulus payments.
Biden’s plan would make good on a promise to raise the total stimulus aid to the American people to $2,000. In early January, before Biden took office, House Republicans blocked Democrats from passing that amount, instead capping the payments at $600. Biden’s decision to push for $1,400 payments on top of those $600 checks has received pushback from a number of Democrats who are pushing for a full $2,000 payment in addition to the initial $600.
A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll found a majority of Americans backed Biden’s proposals, with 74 percent supporting $2,000 checks, to just 13 percent who were against that amount. The survey also found 58 percent supported raising the minimum wage compared to 31 percent who opposed doing so.
The smaller Republican proposal has been dismissed by a number of Democrats, including those in battleground states. Sen. Jon Ossoff and Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia both won narrow runoff races last month after campaigning aggressively on expanded relief, including $2,000 stimulus checks. On Twitter, Ossoff criticized Republicans for seeking smaller payments.
“Why do GOP Senators want to slash direct economic relief?” Ossoff tweeted. “If anything, more ambitious fiscal stimulus is warranted. The people demand and deserve this help. We have the support of the public to be bold. Let’s deliver.”
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana has also come out in favor of going big despite representing a state that former President Trump won in 2020 by more than 16 points.
“I don't think $1.9 trillion, even though it is a boatload of money, is too much money,” Tester said in an interview with CNN on Sunday. “I think now is not the time to starve the economy.”
Some in the GOP have also come out in favor of a larger relief package. West Virginia’s Republican Gov. Jim Justice weighed in Monday, saying he prefers a bigger bill.
“At this point in time in this nation, we need to go big,” Justice, who originally won his seat as a Democrat before switching parties, said in an MSNBC interview. “We need to quit counting the egg-sucking legs on the cows, and count the cows, and just move — and move forward and move right now.”
Justice further added that it was “ridiculous beyond belief to have Democrats and Republicans fighting and couldn’t pass a stimulus package for months.”
“It was godawful. That’s just all there is to it,” he said. “You had people that were suffering that needed to pay their power bill, needed to pay their rent or their car payment.”
But West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate, has bristled at White House efforts to push a larger relief package and expressed support for a bipartisan measure.
Progressive members of Congress, on the other hand, are pressing Biden not to give in to Republican demands.
“It’s fine to talk to them. As long as he makes it clear that they are the ones standing in the way of more relief checks and aid for frontline workers,” an aide to a prominent lawmaker told Yahoo News. “If the recent elections in Georgia told us anything, it’s that people are desperate for help — as much of it as possible. The reconciliation package is just a baseline. Republicans are only making it harder on themselves in 2022 by standing in the way of needed relief.”
When asked if the meeting showed that Biden is committed to making the deal in a bipartisan manner, a White House official pointed to comments Psaki made during a briefing on Monday afternoon.
“We saw this as a good faith proposal they put forward to have a discussion. The president is inviting them here in good faith and we will see where it goes from here,” said Psaki.
Psaki said the conversation was not an indication that Biden is willing “to make or accept an offer” or that he plans to exclude any Democrats from negotiations.
“I can promise you, we’re less than two weeks in and there will be many Democrats in the Oval Office,” said Psaki.
Biden has said it is imperative for the administration to stand firm.
“We cannot, will not let people go hungry,” Biden said on Jan. 22. “We cannot let people be evicted because of nothing they did themselves. ... It’s not just to meet the moral obligation to treat our fellow Americans with the dignity and respect they deserve — this is an economic imperative: a growing economic consensus that we must act decisively and boldly to grow the economy for all Americans, not just for tomorrow but in the future.”
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