President Joe Biden sat down Monday evening with a group of Republican senators who are trying to convince him that coronavirus-weary Americans do not need another major round of economic relief — but the meeting appears to have done little to bridge their differences.
The 10 centrist Republicans, led by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, sounded disappointed after the two-hour long Oval Office discussion and suggested Biden had not budged on his push for the next stimulus package to be in the range of at least $1.9 trillion.
“I wouldn’t say that we came together on a package tonight — no one expected that,” said Collins, who floated a counteroffer with the other nine Republicans over the weekend for a $618 billion stimulus price-tag. “But what we did agree to do was to follow up and discuss further.”
Biden did not immediately offer a statement on the sit-down, but White House officials signaled earlier in the day that the president wasn’t in the business of caving to the Republicans.
“He felt it was, you know, an effort to engage, and engage on a bipartisan basis, and that’s why he invited them,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a briefing before the meeting. “But his view is that the size of the package needs to be commensurate with the crisis we’re facing — the dual crises we’re facing — hence why he proposed a package that’s $1.9 trillion.”
Before reporters were sent out of the Oval Office ahead of the discussion, Biden could be heard telling Collins that he was eager to rhetorically rumble.
“I’m anxious…to talk,” he told Collins, who was seated on the couch next to him. All participants wore face masks.
The Republicans ultimately don’t have much leverage to adopt a smaller relief package, as Democrats control both the House and Senate, giving Biden major incentive to advocate ambitious legislation.
Moreover, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, the two top Democrats in Congress, announced earlier Monday that they’re moving ahead with plans to advance Biden’s stimulus plan through a budgetary process called reconciliation, which would allow the bill to pass without any Republican support.
“The cost of inaction is high and growing, and the time for decisive action is now,” Pelosi and Schumer said in a joint statement. “With this budget resolution, the Democratic Congress is paving the way for the landmark Biden-Harris coronavirus package that will crush the virus and deliver real relief to families and communities in need.”
The nearly $2 trillion measure the president prefers includes $1,400 stimulus checks for U.S. taxpayers earning less than $75,000 per year; beefed-up benefits for the unemployed; more than $400 billion for coronavirus vaccination efforts, and hundreds of billions more in relief for local governments, transit agencies and other public sectors in cash-strapped states like New York. The Biden blueprint also contains a provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15-per-hour — which most Republicans strenuously oppose.
The GOP group at the White House on Monday, which also included Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Rob Portman of Ohio, argued their proposal would be more “targeted.”
In a letter to Biden Sunday, they proposed cutting the direct payments down to $1,000, with tighter eligibility restrictions, dialing back the span of the increased unemployment aid and scrapping relief for state and local governments altogether.
Vice President Kamala Harris also attended Monday’s meeting in a none-too-subtle reminder that she could break a tie if the Senate votes 50-50 on party lines on any given legislation.
Though Biden apparently didn’t concede any ground to the Republicans, Collins told reporters afterward she was “very appreciative” that he hosted them for one of his first legislative talks as president.
“It was a very good exchange of views,” she said.
Democrats working hand-in-hand with Biden expect to unveil the language of the $1.9 trillion proposal later this week.
The renewed push for relief comes as the pandemic continues to batter the U.S. economy, with the Labor Department reporting 847,000 new unemployment claims last week. Meantime, the virus continues to kill thousands of Americans every day, with the national death toll approaching 500,000.
Though Biden prides himself on being able to reach across the aisle, he has stressed he will stick to his guns on coronavirus relief.
“I support passing COVID relief with support from Republicans if we can get it. But the COVID relief has to pass — no ifs, ands or buts,” Biden said Friday.
Originally published February 1, 2021, 7:45 AM