Ossoff and Warnock both won special elections in Georgia earlier this month on promises to deliver voters a new round of $2,000 stimulus checks if elected. President Biden made the same pledge to Georgia voters while campaigning for the two candidates, whose victories gave Democrats narrow control of the Senate.
The stimulus checks are a centerpiece of Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, which Democrats are aiming to move quickly through Congress in coming weeks through special budget rules that would allow them to pass the legislation without GOP votes. The checks in the Biden plan are actually $1,400 per person, but would come on top of $600 checks included in the last relief package in December, bringing the total to $2,000.
The arguments from Ossoff and Warnock in favor of fast action on the checks played into a larger sense of urgency among Democrats during the discussion Thursday that Biden’s package must be enacted swiftly, with or without GOP support. Aides to both Ossoff and Warnock declined to comment on the closed-door lunch.
“My strong impression was that there is general unanimity, and it’s strong that we need to be bold and decisive, particularly in putting shots and putting vaccines in people’s arms and putting money in people’s pockets and putting kids back to school,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. “And one way to put money in people’s pockets is to fulfill our promises on stimulus payments.”
Biden administration officials on Thursday’s call included National Economic Council Director Brian Deese; Jeff Zients, who heads the administration’s covid-19 response; and Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to the White House. A White House spokesman declined to comment.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) added in a statement: “Both Brian and Jeff showed us how serious the White House takes this pandemic and the actions needed to get our arms around this crisis. We know Americans need urgent help and Senate Democrats are prepared to act as soon as possible.”
The discussion came as Democrats formalized plans to move forward on their own with the stimulus legislation, despite warnings from Republicans that they might regret doing so, especially after Biden ran for president as a bipartisan dealmaker.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said earlier Thursday that the House and Senate would take initial votes next week on a budget bill that would allow subsequent party-line passage of the sweeping covid relief package. She portrayed the partisan “budget reconciliation” approach as a fallback position that could pressure Republicans to come on board.
“By the end of the week we will be finished with the budget resolution which will be about reconciliation if we need it,” Pelosi told reporters at her weekly news conference.
“We have to be ready. I do think we have more leverage to get cooperation on the other side if they know we have an alternative,” she said.
The “reconciliation” process allows a budget resolution to pass the Senate with a simple majority vote, instead of the 60 votes normally required for major bills. That could allow the Democrats who control the Senate to pass the legislation with no GOP support, although it would be a struggle because the Senate is split 50-50 between the two parties after Ossoff and Warnock flipped two GOP-held Senate seats in Georgia. Democrats have the majority because Vice President Harris can break ties.
Senate Republicans, including members of a bipartisan group that has been meeting with administration officials about the relief plan, criticized Democrats’ plans to move forward under reconciliation — especially given Biden’s inaugural call for unity.
“It starts the whole process off in a very different place than I think President Biden was in his inaugural address just two weeks ago,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership.
“It’s confrontational. It’s certainly not collaborative,” Blunt said.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a leader of the bipartisan group, told reporters that “it’s certainly not helpful” if reconciliation moves forward. She also said she had spoken personally with Biden, and had “a very friendly call,” in one of the first public indications that the president himself is engaged in the kind of personal bipartisan outreach he promised while campaigning.
Several Republicans suggested they would be open to a narrower bill focused on money for vaccines and other priorities. But Democrats and White House officials said they were not going that route. In addition to the new round of stimulus checks, Biden’s plan includes an extension of unemployment benefits set to expire in mid-March, an increased child tax credit, and hundreds of billions of dollars for schools, vaccines and the health care system, among multiple other provisions.
“We are not looking to split the package,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
“And the reason is because we are not going to put ourselves in a place where … we’re choosing between helping families to put food on the table and making sure kids go back to get back to school or making sure kids, kids get back to school and getting a vaccine in the arms of Americans,” Psaki said.
Democrats said they were determined to move ahead, especially in light of a series of alarming economic reports Thursday, including news that economic growth shrank in 2020, even more than during the Great Recession.
It remains uncertain if Democrats will have the votes they need to move forward with a partisan reconciliation bill. The most conservative Senate Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), sidestepped when pressed Thursday on whether he’d support that approach, insisting several times that “we’re gonna make Joe Biden successful.”