WASHINGTON – Days after an Oval Office meeting with Republican senators to discuss coronavirus relief, President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats are barreling ahead with their own aid package and signaling they are ready to act without backing from Republicans demanding a much smaller plan.
Later, the president met with Senate Democrats in the Oval Office, where he expressed hope that some Republicans would come on board. “I think we’ll get some Republicans,” he said.
Biden campaigned on a pledge to bring bipartisanship back to Washington, but the White House has made it clear he won’t budge from his position that his COVID-19 relief legislation remain largely intact. During their meeting, Biden and Senate Democrats agreed on “the need to go big,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
Democrats said they are willing to look for areas of compromise with Republicans but stressed they are willing to go it alone if necessary.
“We want to do it bipartisan, but we must be strong,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “We cannot dawdle. We cannot delay. We cannot dilute. Because the troubles that this nation has and the opportunities that we can bring them are so large.”
Tuesday, the Democratic-led Senate took a step toward fast-tracking Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package when it voted 50-49 along party lines to approve a budgetary measure that would allow the plan to pass with a simple majority and without Republican support.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., slammed the Democrats’ move. “They’ve chosen a totally partisan path,” he said. “We’re off to a totally partisan start. I think that’s unfortunate.”
McConnell threatened a host of amendments from Senate Republicans to force Democrats to take potentially controversial votes on denying funding to school districts that refused to reopen or on tax increases for small businesses.
The $618 billion package pushed by the 10 Senate Republicans would scrap Biden’s plan for $350 billion in direct aide to state and local governments, reduce direct payments to Americans from $1,400 to $1,000 and remove Biden’s proposal to boost the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
In his private call with House Democrats, Biden told lawmakers he would not break “a promise to the American people” to provide $1,400 aid checks, according to a source who was on the call but not authorized to speak on the record.
Biden did signal that he was “not married on a particular number” for the overall cost of the package and suggested he would be open to changing the income limits for eligibility for a check.
Some moderate Republicans, such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, suggested establishing stricter income limits on the checks to prevent wealthier Americans from receiving them. Biden told House Democrats he would be open to “better target the number” for income limits on the checks, the source said.
But “we have to get this done,” he said.
Moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., signaled that he could support Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal despite expressing some hesitation about the cost.
“If it’s $1.9 trillion, so be it,” Manchin told MSNBC. “If it’s a little smaller than that and we find a targeted need, then that’s what we’re going to do.”
Asked whether Democrats should trim the package, Manchin replied, “No, no. Nothing should be taken off the table.”
“They’re going to negotiate,” he said. “That’s the process.”
Biden’s proposal got another boost this week when about 500 physicians from across the country released a joint letter calling on Congress to approve the plan.
“From our perspective as medical professionals who see the pain and suffering that this pandemic has inflicted on people, we recognize the American Rescue Plan’s wide-ranging ability to help us prevent illness, reduce sickness and help our communities return to normal,” the doctors wrote.
“The stakes could not be higher,” they said, “and the cost of inaction could not be more dire.”
Contributing: Joey Garrison, Bart Jansen, Courtney Subramanian