Biden says he won’t settle for COVID-19 aid package that ‘fails to meet the moment’

National and World

WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — President Joe Biden met late Monday with a group of Republican senators who have proposed spending about one-third of the $1.9 trillion he is seeking in coronavirus aid.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris greeted the lawmakers in the Oval Office, joking that he felt like he was “back in the Senate” as they started the private session. He and Harris were hearing the Republicans’ pitch for a smaller, more targeted COVID relief package that would do away with Democratic priorities but could win GOP support and appeal to his effort to unify the country.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who met with the president and vice president along with eight other fellow Republican senators in what she termed an “excellent” meeting, told reporters the discussion was productive. Though they did not come to an agreement on a package, she said they did agree to follow up discussions and told reporters she is hopeful Congress will pass another COVID-19 relief package.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki released a statement on the meeting, acknowledging Biden and Harris had a “substantive and productive discussion with Republican senators this evening at the White House. The group shared a desire to get help to the American people, who are suffering through the worst health and economic crisis in a generation.”

President Joe Biden meets Republican lawmakers to discuss a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, in Washington. From left, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, Vice President Kamala Harris, Biden, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Psaki said Biden “also reiterated his view that Congress must respond boldly and urgently, and noted many areas which the Republican senators’ proposal does not address. He reiterated that while he is hopeful that the Rescue Plan can pass with bipartisan support, a reconciliation package is a path to achieve that end. The President also made clear that the American Rescue Plan was carefully designed to meet the stakes of this moment, and any changes in it cannot leave the nation short of its pressing needs.”

Psaki closed the statement by saying Biden expressed hope the group could continue to discuss ways to “strengthen the American Rescue Plan as it moves forward, and find areas of common ground — including work on small business support and nutrition programs. He reiterated, however, that he will not slow down work on this urgent crisis response, and will not settle for a package that fails to meet the moment.”

Read Psaki’s full statement:

The President and the Vice President had a substantive and productive discussion with Republican senators this evening at the White House. The group shared a desire to get help to the American people, who are suffering through the worst health and economic crisis in a generation. 

While there were areas of agreement, 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. He reiterated that while he is hopeful that the Rescue Plan can pass with bipartisan support, a reconciliation package is a path to achieve that end. The President also made clear that the American Rescue Plan was carefully designed to meet the stakes of this moment, and any changes in it cannot leave the nation short of its pressing needs. 

The President expressed his hope that the group could continue to discuss ways to strengthen the American Rescue Plan as it moves forward, and find areas of common ground  including work on small business support and nutrition programs. He reiterated, however, that he will not slow down work on this urgent crisis response, and will not settle for a package that fails to meet the moment.

Statement by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ Meeting with Republican Senators

The House and Senate are on track to vote as soon as this week on a budget resolution, which would lay the groundwork for passing an aid package under rules requiring only a simple majority vote in the closely divided Senate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Monday the plan to file a fiscal-year 2021 budget measure in the Senate and House, saying it would allow Congress to fast-track a coronavirus package for passage by both chambers.

The goal is for passage by March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid expires. The meeting hosted by Biden amounts to the most public involvement for the president in the negotiations for the next round of virus relief. Democratic and Republican lawmakers are far apart in their proposals for assistance.

An invitation to the GOP senators to meet at the White House came hours after the lawmakers sent Biden a letter on Sunday urging him to negotiate rather than try to push through his relief package solely on Democratic votes.

In addition to Collins, the other GOP senators who were invited to meet with Biden are Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Todd Young of Indiana, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

“It’s an exchange of ideas,” Psaki said during a press conference Monday before the meeting. “This group sent a letter with some outlines and toplines with their concerns and priorities. What this meeting is not is a forum for the president to make or accept an offer.”

The group of Republicans are proposing slimmer benefits, including $1,000 in direct payments to individuals earning up to $40,000 a year, or $80,000 for couples, according to a draft obtained by The Associated Press. The proposal would begin to phase out the benefit after that, with no payments for those individuals earning more than $50,000, or $100,000 for couples. That’s less than Biden’s proposal for $1,400 direct payments at higher incomes levels. They offer a fraction of what he wants to re-open schools.

The cornerstone of the GOP plan appears to be $160 billion for the health care response – vaccine distribution, a “massive expansion” of testing, protective gear and funds for rural hospitals, according to the draft. They would give nothing to states, money that Democrats argue is just as important, with $350 billion in Biden’s plan to keep police, fire and other workers on the job.

Gone from the GOP plan are Democratic priorities such as a gradual lifting of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“There’s obviously a big gap between $600b and $1.9 trillion,” Psaki said. “And so clearly he [President Biden] thinks the package size needs to be closer to what he proposed.”

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“He’s happy to hear from them, but he also feels strongly about the need to make sure the size of the package meets this moment,” Psaki continued.

Others elements of the package are similar but at far lesser amounts, with $20 billion to reopen schools and $40 billion for Paycheck Protection Program business aid.

“In the spirit of bipartisanship and unity, we have developed a COVID-19 relief framework that builds on prior COVID assistance laws, all of which passed with bipartisan support,” the Republican senators wrote in their letter Sunday. “Our proposal reflects many of your stated priorities, and with your support, we believe that this plan could be approved quickly by Congress with bipartisan support.”

Winning the support of 10 Republicans would be significant for Biden in the 50-50 Senate where Vice President Kamala Harris is the tie-breaker. If all Democrats were to back an eventual compromise bill, the legislation would reach the 60-vote threshold necessary to overcome potential blocking efforts and pass under regular Senate procedures.

“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.

One of the signatories, Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, said that the plan would cost about $600 billion.

“If you can’t find bipartisan compromise on COVID-19, I don’t know where you can find it,” said Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who also signed the letter.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said his chamber would begin work on it as early as this week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Congress would complete a preliminary step before the end of the week.

But even as Biden extended the invitation to the Republican lawmakers, Psaki said that $1,400 relief checks, substantial funding for reopening schools, aid to small businesses and hurting families, and more “is badly needed.”

“As leading economists have said, the danger now is not in doing too much: it is in doing too little,” Psaki said. “Americans of both parties are looking to their leaders to meet the moment.”

Schumer warned that history is filled with “the costs of small thinking.”

“The cost of inaction is high and growing, and the time for decisive action is now,” he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a joint statement.

Brian Deese, the top White House economic adviser leading the administration’s outreach to Congress, indicated the White House could be open to negotiating on further limiting who would receive stimulus checks.

Portman suggested the checks should go to individuals who make no more than $50,000 per year and families capped at $100,000 per year.

Under the Biden plan, families with incomes up to $300,000 could receive some stimulus money.

“That is certainly a place that we’re willing to sit down and think about, are there ways to make the entire package more effective?” Deese said.

In the letter, the Republican lawmakers reminded Biden that in his inaugural address, he proclaimed that the challenges facing the nation require “the most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity.”

Cassidy separately criticized the current Biden plan as “chock-full of handouts and payoffs to Democratic constituency groups.”

“You want the patina of bipartisanship … so that’s not unity,” Cassidy said.

Jared Bernstein, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said officials needed to see more details from Republicans. Doing too little to stimulate the economy could have enormous impact on the economy in the near- and long-term, he said.

“Look, the American people really couldn’t care less about budget process, whether it’s regular order, bipartisanship, whether it’s filibuster, whether it’s reconciliation,” Bernstein said. “They need relief, and they need it now.”

Congress enacted $4 trillion in COVID-19 relief last year.

You can watch Psaki’s full press briefing in the player below.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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