Joe Biden meets Republicans as Democrats push on for virus aid

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

February 02, 2021 06:50 am | Updated 07:10 am IST - Washington

U.S. President Joe Biden signs a series of orders at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington D.C. on January 20, 2021.

U.S. President Joe Biden signs a series of orders at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington D.C. on January 20, 2021.

U.S. President Joe Biden met late on Monday with a group of Republican senators who have proposed a slimmed down $618 billion coronavirus aid package — a fraction of the $1.9 trillion he is seeking — as congressional Democrats vowed to push ahead with or without GOP support.

Mr. Biden greeted the lawmakers in the Oval Office, joking that he felt like he was “back in the Senate” as they started the private session. He and Vice President Kamala Harris were hearing the Republicans’ pitch for a smaller, more targeted COVID relief package that would do away with Democratic priorities but could win GOP support and appeal to his effort to unify the country.

The Republican group’s proposal taps into bipartisan urgency to shore up the nation’s vaccine distribution and vastly expand virus testing with $160 billion in aid, similar to what Mr. Biden has proposed. But from there, the two plans drastically diverge. Less focussed on economic aid, the GOP's $1,000 direct payments would go to fewer households than the $1,400 Mr. Biden has proposed, and the Republicans offer only a fraction of what he wants to re-open schools.

They also would give nothing to States, money that Democrats argue is just as important, with $350 billion in Mr. 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.

Engaging the White House in high-profile bipartisan talks comes when House and Senate Democrats have announced they would push ahead, laying the groundwork for approving Mr. Biden’s package with a process that will not depend on Republican support for passage.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer warned that history is filled with “the costs of small thinking”. “The cost of inaction is high and growing, and the time for decisive action is now,” he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a joint 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 Mr. 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 materialise or delivering too meagre a package as they believe happened during the 2009 recovery.

The accelerating talks came as the Congressional Budget Office delivered mixed economic forecasts on 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 Mr. Biden has proposed and the $618 billion counteroffer.

Ms. Psaki said on Monday that the meeting with Republican lawmakers would be an “exchange of ideas” but Mr. 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 Mr. Biden a letter on Sunday, urging him to negotiate rather than try to ram through his relief package solely on Democratic votes.

“We recognise 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 Mr. Biden. “We share many of your priorities.” The cornerstone of the GOP plan is $160 billion for the healthcare 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 Mr. Biden’s plan but at far lesser amounts, with $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 is less than Mr. Biden’s proposal of $1,400 direct payments at higher income levels.

With Mr. 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 Mr. Biden would amount to the most public involvement for the President in the negotiations for the next round of virus relief.

Winning the support of 10 Republicans would be significant for Mr. Biden in the 50-50 Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris is the tie-breaker. 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.

The plea for Mr. Biden to give bipartisan negotiations more time comes as the President has shown signs of impatience as the more liberal wing of his party considers passing the relief package through a process known as budget reconciliation. That would allow the bill to pass with a 51-vote majority in the Senate, rather than the 60 votes typically needed to advance.

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