(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden intends to continue pushing for a large pandemic relief bill, even if he has to bypass Senate Republicans, his press secretary said, hours after what one Republican senator called a “very productive” meeting Monday on stimulus options.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that “while there were areas of agreement” between Biden and the 10 GOP senators in the White House meeting, “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 added that while Biden “is hopeful” that what he calls the American Rescue Plan “can pass with bipartisan support, a reconciliation package is a path to achieve that end.” That’s a reference to a procedure that would allow the legislation to pass the Senate with just 51 votes -- potentially, all 50 Democrats plus the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who called the meeting productive, said the senators had agreed with Biden during the two-hour meeting to continue negotiating a bipartisan relief plan. Biden explained “in more depth” parts of his $1.9 trillion plan and the 10 Republicans outlined their counter-proposal.
“I wouldn’t say that we came together on a package tonight. No one expected that,” she told reporters afterward. But the two sides agreed to have aides continue talks, she said.
Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana described Biden as accommodating.
“I was the first person to speak about a specific issue. I said, ‘Mr. President, I don’t want to seem rude,”’ Cassidy recounted in an interview. “He said, ‘Listen, I’ve been in all these negotiations. We’re going to have a difference of viewpoints on some things. We’re going to agree on some things. And when we disagree, we’re not being rude.”’
Cassidy added that Biden revealed additional details of his proposal, including a plan to use some of the $50 billion he’s requested for vaccinations to expand genomic testing, which can identify new and potentially more dangerous strains of the virus.
The meeting was organized after the Republican group presented the White House with their alternative relief plan on Sunday.
“I feel like I’m back in the Senate,” Biden joked to reporters, who were only allowed to observe the gathering for about 40 seconds before they were ushered out of the Oval Office.
The president and the senators “shared a desire to get help to the American people, who are suffering through the worst health and economic crisis in a generation,” Psaki said.
Collins said that “all of us are concerned about struggling families, teetering small businesses,” the “overwhelmed health care system” and accelerating coronavirus vaccinations.
Yet it’s not clear the Republican proposal -- which carries a $618 billion price tag -- will be enough for Democrats, who have been preparing a party-line push on Capitol Hill with a plan that largely mirrored Biden’s. They have warned that spending too little on vaccinations, testing and support for Americans impacted by the pandemic could prolong economic woes.
The Republican plan reduces the stimulus checks proposed by Biden from $1,400 to $1,000 with tighter income limits, eliminates Biden’s minimum-wage increase, and includes just $20 billion for schools -- compared to $170 billion in the White House plan. The GOP proposal also offers less generous unemployment benefits and omits $350 billion in emergency funding for state and local governments sought by Democrats.
Cassidy said that the Republicans asked Biden for more information on the school funding in his plan, arguing that Congress has already provided nearly three times as much as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated is necessary to resume in-person classes. Biden agreed “to try and get us justification” for his larger proposal, Cassidy said.
There could be room for negotiation: The Republican plan includes $160 billion on spending for vaccines, testing, and personal protective equipment sought by the White House, while some GOP senators participating in the meeting have said they could support funding for state budgets decimated by the pandemic.
But congressional Democrats moved Monday to lay groundwork for a reconciliation bill, releasing a budget resolution that is the first step in the process.
Some members of Biden’s own economic team have questioned the size and scope of his stimulus check proposal, worrying that assistance to wealthier Americans could come at the expense of other priorities. And a party-line vote would require support from Democratic senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have expressed reservations about the cost.
Democrats could still look to pass discarded elements of the president’s proposal in a subsequent package, with Biden expected to outline an even larger stimulus and infrastructure proposal by the end of the month. The president, who has stressed the need for unity in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidency and last month’s riot at the U.S. Capitol, has indicated an eagerness to work across the aisle.
If he were able to win support for his package from the 10 Republicans he’s met with, he would avoid a possible filibuster by the GOP, and Democrats would be able to avoid employing reconciliation.
QuickTake: How the Senate Strategy Known as Reconciliation Works
Members of the Democratic Party anxiously watched Monday’s negotiations for indications of how ambitious Biden plans to be while the party enjoys control -- albeit by the slimmest of margins -- of both chambers of Congress.
Many Democrats say that former President Barack Obama squandered a legislative advantage early in his presidency by engaging with Republicans who rejected stimulus and health-care initiatives despite efforts to court their vote. And the party’s left flank – which supported progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the presidential primaries – has long expressed concern Biden is too worried about maintaining collegial relations with his former Senate colleagues and charting a moderate path.
But the White House has signaled that Biden at least will enter the meeting planning to stick to his guns.
“The risk is not going too small, but not being big enough,” Psaki said earlier, adding that “the size of the package needs to be commensurate with the crisis we’re facing.”
But recent history has shown that talks between the White House and opposition lawmakers can take unexpected pathways.
During his term, Trump agreed in meetings with Democratic congressional leaders to a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal and a deal that would have exchanged border-wall funding for immigration protections for those brought to the country as children –- only for White House staff to subsequently urge the president to renege. And some Democrats still fault Biden for his work on the 2012 fiscal cliff deal with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, arguing that the then-vice president undermined their negotiating position.
Like with McConnell, Biden has decades-long relationships with some of the Republicans backing the new proposal. The senators involved in the effort include Collins, Cassidy, Rob Portman of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Todd Young of Indiana, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
But Biden and his team may feel they have the upper hand this round. Aides pointed out that Jim Justice, West Virginia’s Republican governor, on Monday endorsed the prospect of large-scale stimulus. Democrats won two run-off Senate elections in Georgia last month in part by highlighting the issue of increasing stimulus checks that Republicans opposed. And Democrats from other traditionally Republican states -- including Montana’s Jon Tester -- have said they support Biden’s effort, underscoring what the White House describes as popular support for the proposal.
“I don’t think $1.9 trillion, even though it is a boatload of money, is too much money,” Tester told CNN on Sunday. “Now is not the time to starve the economy.”
There also appears to be little appetite among some of Biden’s key congressional allies for scaling back his ambitions. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee -- which oversees tax, health care, stimulus payments and unemployment benefits – called the GOP plan a “non-starter.”
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