June 20, 2021

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Biden Invites Republican Senators to Discuss Covid-19 Relief Plans

WASHINGTON—President

Biden

invited a group of Republican senators to discuss a coronavirus-relief bill after they proposed a $600 billion bipartisan plan, as Democrats prepared to advance the White House’s a $1.9 trillion package without GOP support.

Mr. Biden issued the invitation to the 10 Republican senators, asking they come to the White House early this week for a “full exchange of views,” the White House said in a statement Sunday evening. It said Mr. Biden made the invitation in a conversation with Sen.

Susan Collins

(R., Maine), who helped organize the Republican proposal.

In a letter Sunday, the Republican senators asked to meet with Mr. Biden to present details of their proposal and said they were coming forward in response to his appeal for bipartisanship.

The GOP proposal would cost around $600 billion, according to Sen.

Bill Cassidy

(R., La.), who signed the letter, less than one-third of what Mr. Biden has proposed. Republicans said they would retain the $160 billion the Biden package includes to increase vaccinations and take other efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus, but strip or scale back other measures. The GOP plan, for instance, would reduce the $1,400 direct payments to Americans Mr. Biden has called for to roughly $1,000, Mr. Cassidy said on “Fox News Sunday.”

The offer is the first Republicans have forwarded since Mr. Biden proposed the $1.9 trillion plan, which Republicans have said is too costly and includes unneeded initiatives, and tests whether the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress will seek compromise or try to pass the relief package themselves. Democratic leaders have said they plan to begin a legislative process that would bypass the need for Republican support this week, with the first step coming as soon as Monday.

Mr. Biden also spoke Sunday with House Speaker

Nancy Pelosi

and Senate Majority Leader

Chuck Schumer,

according to White House press secretary

Jen Psaki.

She said in a statement that Mr. Biden is “grateful that Congress is prepared to begin action” on the administration’s package.

On Sunday, the Biden administration showed no signs of backing off its $1.9 trillion price tag, with key economic advisers appearing on several television shows to tout the need for the relief bill.

Brian Deese,

Mr. Biden’s top economic adviser, said the White House is reviewing the Republicans’ letter and is willing to discuss ways to make the relief package more effective.

Mr. Deese, responding to questions on two Sunday morning news shows, declined to say whether the $1.9 trillion spending level is negotiable and suggested that delaying relief would worsen the pandemic and its effects on the economy.

“If we don’t act now the cost of that is going to be greater going forward,” Mr. Deese said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

President Biden on Friday signed two executive orders aimed at boosting pandemic aid, including increasing food assistance and enhancing worker protections. Photo: Ken Cedeno/Pool/Shutterstock

Republicans have said the $1.9 trillion in proposed spending isn’t needed right now, given that Congress late last year passed $900 billion in relief, and have criticized its inclusion of a minimum-wage increase and other longstanding Democratic policy goals they see as unrelated to the pandemic.

Democrats, including Mr. Biden, have said the $900 billion package was a down payment on a bigger stimulus needed to meet the health and economic demands of the crisis. They have argued that insufficient spending to shore up public health and the economy risks undermining the country’s recovery and that a federal minimum-wage increase to $15 an hour is necessary to ensure people working 40 hours a week aren’t living in poverty.

The Republican letter outlines components of the proposal, including the $160 billion for vaccine distribution, testing, tracing and personal protective equipment and $4 billion to bolster behavioral health and substance abuse services. They called for extending enhanced federal unemployment insurance and small-business relief and said they want to target the next round of direct checks “for those families who need assistance the most.”

Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan provides $1,400 checks to many Americans; increases and extends federal unemployment support and offers funds for vaccine distribution and schools. In addition to the minimum-wage increase, the plan also includes funding for state and local governments opposed by many Republicans.

While Mr. Deese said the White House is open to discussing how to target relief checks, he suggested it is unwilling to accept a smaller, bipartisan agreement that removes key elements of the broader proposal.

“One thing we’ve learned over the past 11 months is a piecemeal approach, where we try to tackle one element of this and wait-and-see on the rest, is not a recipe for success,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Sen. Schumer (D., N.Y.) told the New York Daily News that the Republican plan omits important components of Mr. Biden’s proposal, including funds for state and local governments.

“That’s just one thing of many,” he said. “We’d like to negotiate with them, but there’s lots of things in the president’s plan that are not in their plan.”

Mr. Cassidy said the GOP senators’ plan decreases the $170 billion set aside for schools in Mr. Biden’s proposal, calling that figure a waste of money.

He said many parochial and charter schools have already reopened. “The real problem is public schools. That issue is not money. That issue is teachers unions telling their teachers not to go to work,” he said.

Sen. Collins led the letter from the senators—mainly moderates whose support Democrats would likely need if they want to pass bipartisan legislation. The other signers were:

Lisa Murkowski

of Alaska,

Mitt Romney

of Utah,

Rob Portman

of Ohio,

Shelley Moore Capito

of West Virginia,

Todd Young

of Indiana,

Jerry Moran

of Kansas,

Thom Tillis

of North Carolina,

Mike Rounds

of South Dakota and Mr. Cassidy.

With the Senate split 50-50 and 60 votes needed to advance most legislation, Democratic leaders are turning to a lengthy, multistep process known as budget reconciliation, which would allow them to pass legislation with a simple majority in both chambers. That would mean they could pass a relief package if all 50 Senate Democrats stick together, and Vice President

Kamala Harris

casts a tiebreaking vote.

The first step is to pass a budget resolution, which could be introduced as early as Monday, according to aides, setting up votes in both chambers later in the week. Mrs. Pelosi (D., Calif.) said last week the House is expected to vote on it first.

Mr. Portman criticized the Democrats’ plan to use budget reconciliation, as Republicans did in 2017 to advance a $1.5 trillion tax cut, saying unlike taxes the relief bill has nothing to do with the federal budget.

“My hope is the president will meet with us and we’ll be able to work out something that is bipartisan,” he said on CNN.

Democratic leaders said last week they haven’t ruled out a bipartisan effort, but are commencing the reconciliation process to preserve that option. Many Democrats view the expiration of unemployment benefits in mid-March as the deadline to pass the next aid package.

“We have to be ready,” Mrs. Pelosi told reporters last week. “We want it to be bipartisan always, but we can’t surrender if they’re not going to be doing that,” she said of Republicans.

Democrats will have to keep their own ranks aligned. They can afford no defections in the evenly split Senate and no more than four in the narrowly divided House on legislation if Republicans remain unified in opposition.

Sen. Bernie Sanders

(I., Vt.), who will help lead the reconciliation process as the top member of the Democratic caucus on the Senate Budget Committee, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that he is “absolutely confident” Democrats have the votes to go ahead, despite reservations voiced by some moderates.

Write to Kristina Peterson at [email protected], Kate Davidson at [email protected] and Chad Day at [email protected]

Corrections & Amplifications
An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan as $1.9 billion.

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