Meeting With Republicans On COVID-19 Relief, White House Says Biden 'Will Not Settle'
Updated at 8:23 p.m. ET on Monday
A group of Republican senators met with President Biden on Monday evening to detail a smaller counterproposal to his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, an alternative they believe could be approved "quickly by Congress with bipartisan support."
Republican lawmakers reported an "excellent" discussion, while the White House said the president "will not settle" for a package that would "leave the nation short of its pressing needs."
The meeting lasted approximately two hours, after which Sen. Susan Collins of Maine reported a "very productive" and "cordial" conversation. She said there was no agreement reached, but that she is hopeful Congress can pass another relief package.
"What we did agree to do is to follow up and talk further at the staff level and amongst ourselves and with the president and vice president on how we can continue to work together on this very important issue," she told reporters at the White House. "All of us are concerned about struggling families, teetering small businesses and overwhelmed health care system, getting vaccines out and into people's arms and strengthening our economy and addressing the public health crisis that we face."
In a statement, the White House also called the meeting "productive," but also said the president "reiterated his view that Congress must respond boldly and urgently, and noted many areas which the Republican senators' proposal does not address."
The president "will not slow down work on this urgent crisis response, and will not settle for a package that fails to meet the moment," the statement read.
The White House had said the meeting would focus on how Biden's plan "will deliver urgently needed relief to working families and small businesses, and speed up vaccinations and the reopening of schools."
"We appreciate the President's quick response to our letter, and we are pleased to accept his invitation to the White House ... to discuss the path forward for the sixth bipartisan COVID-19 relief package," the 10 senators said in a statement.
The outreach from more moderate GOP lawmakers came as many Democrats look to a process called budget reconciliation, which would potentially enable Democrats to approve the president's plan without any Republican support.
"We recognize 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 GOP senators wrote in the original letter, dated Sunday.
Republicans have balked at the price tag of Biden's $1.9 trillion package, especially coming weeks after then-President Donald Trump signed a $900 billion relief measure into law. The proposal from the 10 lawmakers is estimated to cost $618 billion.
That 10 Republicans signed on is notable because that's the number that would be needed to combine with Senate Democrats' 50-person caucus to reach the 60-vote, filibuster-proof threshold to pass legislation under regular Senate rules.
"We're certainly open to input from anywhere where we can find a constructive idea to make this package as effective as possible, but the president is uncompromising when it comes to the speed that we need to act at to address this crisis," Brian Deese, Biden's top economic adviser, told CNN's State of the Union on Sunday.
On Friday, Biden himself told reporters at the White House: "I support passing COVID relief with support from Republicans if we can get it. But the COVID relief has to pass."
In the letter Sunday, the senators note that earlier COVID-19 relief packages passed with bipartisan support and that their proposal includes some elements similar to those in Biden's plan, including allocating $160 billion for vaccine development and distribution, testing and tracing, and personal protective equipment.
"Our proposal also includes economic relief for those Americans with the greatest need, providing more targeted assistance than in the Administration's plan," the letter reads. "We propose an additional round of economic impact payments for those families who need assistance the most, including their dependent children and adults."
Their plan calls for $220 billion for a new round of direct payments, with $1,000 sent to individuals making under $40,000 a year and $500 for dependent adults and children. Individuals making over $50,000 and couples making over $100,000 would be ineligible for direct payments.
The plan also calls for $132 billion for unemployment benefits, with $300 per week through the end of June, as opposed to Biden's plan to continue the benefit through September.
Notably, it does not mention state and local aid, which was a key sticking point in past rounds of relief negotiations. Biden's package includes $350 billion in emergency funding for state and local governments.
The letter was also signed by Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Todd Young of Indiana, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Mitt Romney of Utah, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.
Democrats prepare for budget reconciliation
On Monday, the same day House Democrats also introduced resolution that will lay the groundwork for going through a reconciliation process.
"By the end of the week, we will be finished with the budget resolution, which will be about reconciliation, if needed," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters last week. "I hope we don't need it. But if we need it, we will have it."
Separately, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said on Thursday that Democrats' "preference" is for the relief efforts to be bipartisan.
"But if our Republican colleagues decide to oppose this urgent and necessary legislation," Schumer said, "we will have to move forward without them."
He added that "we must not repeat the same mistake" of 12 years ago when Democrats agreed to a stimulus many considered too small in order to gain Republican support.
"The dangers of undershooting our response are far greater than overshooting it," Schumer said. "We should have learned the lesson, from 2008 and 2009, when Congress was too timid and constrained in its response to the global financial crisis and it took years — years — for the economy to get out of recession."
With the thinnest possible majority in the Senate, Democrats have essentially two options to try to pass Biden's coronavirus relief package without bipartisan support.
The first would be to kill the legislative filibuster, but at least two Democratic senators have pledged to oppose such a move to blow up the rules of the upper chamber.
The second option for Democrats is to use reconciliation, a process that has been used for the Affordable Care Act and the GOP tax cuts Trump signed into law. The process can be lengthy — and complicated — but would allow Senate Democrats to pass legislation with a simple majority vote without eliminating the filibuster.
But Senate Republicans have warned that using this process to avoid needing to garner their votes could be damaging.
Portman, who signed the letter to the White House, recently cautioned the Biden administration and congressional Democrats against moving forward on the new round of relief legislation without GOP support, saying doing so "poisons the well."
"My hope is that we won't go down this path of trying to circumvent the supermajority and just jam something through," Portman told NPR's Susan Davis. "I think that would set the tone for the administration that would be really problematic for the country and, frankly, bad for the Biden administration."
NPR's Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.
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