Biden to Push Congress on Stimulus After Senators Question Cost
U.S. President Joe Biden signs an executive order at the White House in Washington. (Photographer: Doug Mills/The New York Times/Bloomberg)

Biden to Push Congress on Stimulus After Senators Question Cost

President Joe Biden will escalate appeals for Congress to back his top priority, $1.9 trillion in pandemic relief, seeking to overcome Republican opposition to the plan as he enters his first full week in office.

Biden’s top economic adviser, Brian Deese, spent more than an hour on Sunday discussing the proposal with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Some asked the White House to further justify what would be the second-largest emergency spending measure in U.S. history and expressed interest in a much narrower bill focused on accelerating coronavirus vaccine distribution, according to Senator Angus King of Maine and people familiar with the matter.

Deese and other officials provided details and context in response to the senators’ questions, according to an administration official. Senior White House aides plan to keep talking with lawmakers in both parties this week to hear their concerns but also press for urgent action, the official said.

As the president’s team began its work with key lawmakers, Biden is moving forward with another round of executive actions, following on a series of orders signed soon after he took office. On Monday, he will sign an order directing federal agencies to buy more American-made products and is expected to take other actions on criminal justice, climate, health care and immigration.

The new orders will add to roughly two dozen actions Biden has signed since Inauguration Day in an effort to address the coronavirus pandemic, reverse former President Donald Trump’s agenda and point the nation in a new direction.

While girding for what may be prolonged negotiations with Republicans, Biden received welcome news with the Senate’s decision to delay the start of Trump’s second impeachment trial. The president had urged lawmakers to spend more time filling Cabinet posts and working on his agenda. The Senate this week is expected to take up the nomination of Janet Yellen to lead the Treasury Department, which would fill a key vacancy at a critical moment for the economy.

But agreement has been hard to come by in the 50-50 Senate, where Democratic and Republican leaders have yet to reach a power-sharing deal -- much less come to terms on the White House’s stimulus proposal.

Taken together, the developments show the honeymoon period of Biden’s presidency could be coming to a close mere days after he took office. The challenges raise questions about whether Biden can keep his pledge to unify the country while pushing forward with an ambitious policy agenda that addresses thorny issues. Biden’s aides have expressed optimism.

“By and large, we’ve seen a lot of progress on this front,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The coming days will also test Biden’s personal relationships with members of Congress, which his team said would help him get big things done in a divided Washington. For now, his lieutenants are taking the lead in trying to build some support for his stimulus and immigration bills.

Deese on Sunday spoke to a bipartisan group of 16 senators, including moderate Republican Senators Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, all of whom have expressed reservations about the price tag for Biden’s virus relief proposal.

Before the call, Romney described the $1.9 trillion cost “shocking,” considering a $900 billion stimulus Congress passed in late December. Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Romney called for targeted relief measures focused on ending the pandemic rather than another major stimulus package.

More Information

King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, said the White House should provide hard figures to show why such a large package is needed on the heels of December’s stimulus law.

“Part of what we’re asking for is more data -- where did you get the number?” said King, who participated in Deese’s call.

A Democrat on the call, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, said that lawmakers need more information on how the last stimulus was used.

“I think that case can be better made when we get more transparency and better numbers about how the last $900 billion — much of which has started to go out — but I think the administration needs to be very transparent about how those dollars have been delivered,” Warner said in an interview on NPR.

Facing pressure from liberals for quick action, the White House has brushed aside the idea of cutting off bipartisan talks by using a maneuver called “budget reconciliation,” which would conceivably allow much of the legislation to pass through the Senate with only Democratic votes. Under normal rules, major legislation often needs 60 votes to pass the Senate, meaning Democrats would need at least 10 Republicans to advance Biden’s relief plan.

Yet Biden’s team has also resisted making changes favored by Republicans, such as reducing the package’s size, breaking it into smaller pieces or removing controversial items like a minimum wage increase.

“We were going to move fast and we’re going to move bipartisan,” Klain said. “I don’t think bipartisanship and speed are enemies of one another. The need is urgent. Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, are dying. Kids’ schools that take care of both Democratic and Republican kids are closed. People are on unemployment. People are in food lines. That’s not a party issue.”

‘Buy American’

In the meantime, the president plans to spend part of each day next week signing executive actions. Monday’s order will start the process of strengthening requirements for federal agencies to buy U.S.-made goods and services, according to administration officials. It will also tighten standards for how much of a product needs to be manufactured in the U.S. in order to be considered American-made.

Another batch of orders are expected to be aimed at racial justice. Among them are directives to create a federal commission on police reform, limit the transfer of military equipment to police and wind down the use of private prisons.

Biden also plans to sign actions that elevate climate change as a national security and regulatory priority and convene a summit of world leaders on April 22 to discuss the issue.

The president is also expected to rescind a controversial rule blocking U.S. funding for foreign groups that provide abortions, known as the Mexico City policy, and sign an order bolstering Medicaid and Obamacare.

On immigration, Biden plans to sign actions that restore the U.S. asylum and refugee systems that largely ground to a halt under Trump. He’s expected to direct a review of a Trump-era rule that tightened criteria for refusing entry to potential immigrants on the grounds they would become dependent on government assistance. Biden also plans to form a task force to reunite migrant children with guardians separated from them under Trump’s border policies.

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