Biden Stimulus May Be Democrat-Only Despite Cordial GOP Meeting

President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats signaled they’re intent on a large pandemic relief bill, potentially without Republican support, even after a White House meeting with GOP senators on Monday that both sides described as productive.

While the 10 senators who participated described the meeting as “excellent” with “a very productive exchange of views,” in a joint statement, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden had emphasized that Congress had to act urgently and “boldly” and had pointed out many areas of disagreement with the Republicans.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer meanwhile introduced a budget resolution on Monday, the first step required to use a procedure called “budget reconciliation” that would allow much of Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus to pass the Senate with only 51 votes.

Biden Stimulus May Be Democrat-Only Despite Cordial GOP Meeting

Biden and the 10 Republicans agreed to have their aides continue to negotiate a bipartisan relief plan. The legislation is the president’s top priority, and conceding to a GOP proposal that is one-third the size would be taken by his supporters on the left as a defeat.

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,” Psaki said. Using reconciliation, Democrats could potentially pass the bill in the Senate with only their 50 votes plus that of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Nonetheless, Senator Susan Collins of Maine called the two-hour White House meeting “useful” and that Biden had 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. Yet the two sides agreed to have aides continue talks, she added.

The president clearly charmed his guests. The Republicans were the first lawmakers known to have met with him in the White House since his Jan. 20 inauguration.

“I was the first person to speak about a specific issue. I said, ‘Mr. President, I don’t want to seem rude,”’ Senator Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, 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.

Jared Bernstein, a member of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, said Tuesday it was “very good” to see the bipartisan discussion Monday evening but reiterated that the White House’s goal is to get a large rescue package passed quickly.

“If this stops with a good meeting, it’s not going to begin to meet the urgent needs of the American people,” Bernstein said on MSNBC. “We’ve got to get there quickly, and we’ve got to get there with a magnitude of the proposal that’s the American Rescue Plan. The danger here is not doing too much. It’s doing too little.”

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.

Collins said that “all of us are concerned about struggling families, teetering small businesses,” the “overwhelmed health care system” and accelerating coronavirus vaccinations.

It’s clear that the Republican proposal -- which carries a $618 billion price tag -- isn’t enough for Democrats, who have been preparing a party-line push on Capitol Hill with a plan that largely mirrors Biden’s. They have warned that spending too little on vaccinations, testing and support for Americans affected 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.

Read more: Schumer, Pelosi File Budget Resolution to Use for Covid Relief

Cassidy said that the Republicans asked Biden for more information on the school funding in his plan, arguing that Congress had 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 devastated by the pandemic.

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, which can carry political repercussions.

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.

Cassidy complimented Biden’s approach to the talks, comparing him favorably with his GOP predecessor.

“Somebody once said you can see President Trump ran a bunch of hotels because when you’re there, he’s very gracious and kind of pulls you in. Similarly with President Biden but clearly their styles are very different, without saying,” Cassidy said. “So both of them made you feel welcome. President Biden went more towards, ‘Let’s look at the data. O.K., our data may disagree but let’s get back to you.”’

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 him 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 after Biden explicitly promised bigger stimulus checks. And Democrats from other traditionally Republican states -- including Montana’s Jon Tester -- have said they support Biden’s plan, 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.”

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