Biden and Republicans meet on COVID-19 relief package, but no quick deal reached
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden told Republican senators during a two-hour meeting he's unwilling to settle on an insufficient coronavirus aid package after they pitched their slimmed down $618 billion proposal that's a fraction of the $1.9 trillion he is seeking.
No compromise was reached in the lengthy session Monday night, Biden's first with lawmakers at the White House, and Democrats in Congress pushed ahead with groundwork for approving his COVID-19 relief plan with or without Republican votes. Despite the Republican group's appeal for bipartisanship, as part of Biden's efforts to unify the country, the president made it clear he won't delay aid in hopes of winning GOP support.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that 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."
She said, "He will not slow down work on this urgent crisis response, and will not settle for a package that fails to meet the moment."
The two sides are far apart, with the Republican group of 10 senators focused primarily on the health care crisis and smaller $1,000 direct aid to Americans, and Biden leading Democrats toward a more sweeping rescue package, three times the size, to shore up households, local governments and a partly shuttered economy.
On a fast track, the goal is to have COVID-19 relief approved by March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid expires, testing the ability of the new administration and Congress to deliver, with political risks for all sides from failure.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine called the meeting a "frank and very useful" conversation, noting that the president also filled in some details on his proposal.
"All of us are concerned about struggling families, teetering small businesses and an overwhelmed health care system," said Collins, flanked by other senators outside the White House.
Republicans are tapping into bipartisan urgency to improve 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.
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, unwilling to take too much time in courting GOP support that may not materialize or in delivering too meager a package that they believe doesn't address the scope of the nation's health 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 step toward approving Biden's package with a reconciliation process that wouldn'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 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.
The overture from the coalition of 10 GOP senators, mostly centrists, was 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.
Asked if Biden had shown a willingness to reduce his $1.9 trillion top line, Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, said, "He didn't say that, nor did we say we're willing to come up" from the GOP plan. He said it's "too early" to say if a deal can be reached.
But in echoes of the 2009 financial crisis, Democrats warn against too small a package as they believe happened during the Obama administration's attempt to pull the nation toward recovery.
Psaki said earlier Monday there is "obviously a big gap" between the $1.9 trillion package Biden has proposed and the $618 billion counteroffer.
An invitation to the GOP senators to meet with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris 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.
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.
It also includes $20 billion to reopen schools compared to $170 billion in Biden's plan. 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, up to $300,000 for some households.
The meeting, though private, 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 Harris is the tie-breaker. Or he can push it through the budget 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 legislation.
The White House remains committed to exploring avenues for bipartisanship even as it prepares for Democrats to move alone on a COVID-19 relief bill, according to a senior administration official granted anonymity to discuss the private thinking.
At the same time, the White House may be willing to adjust its ask, perhaps shifting some less virus-oriented aspects into a package that is set to go next before Congress, the official said.
Biden himself has been on the phone to some of the Republicans, the official said.
Besides Collins and Cassidy, the 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, 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 he has shown frustration with the pace of negotiations as applications for jobless benefits remain stubbornly high and the COVID-19 death toll nears 450,000 Americans.