Biden and Schumer prepare to ditch Republicans on Covid relief package as GOP offers cut-price proposal

‘Yes, I believe that we do [have the votes],’ Senator Bernie Sanders says of party-line Covid relief proposal

Griffin Connolly
Sunday 31 January 2021 19:00
Biden makes remarks on the fight against COVID-19
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Joe Biden wants a $1.9trn Covid relief deal.

Republicans want a package worth less than a third of that.

And while the president wants to work across the aisle to strike a bipartisan deal in keeping with his promise to “unify” the nation, Democrats on Capitol Hill are dialing up the pressure on him to abandon that fantasy and move forward without Republican obstructionists.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Sunday gave his strongest indication yet that his caucus is prepared to take the plunge on a partisan Covid package with Mr Biden and House Democrats, who are also in the majority.

Mr Schumer balked at the new $600bn proposal from 10 Republican senators on Sunday, suggesting the GOP package wasn’t even worth using a starting point on negotiations since Mr Biden wants three times more.

“They should negotiate with us, not make a take-it-or-leave-it offer,” Mr Schumer told the New York Daily News.

Mr Schumer is still haunted by the frustrations of 2009 and 2010, when Barack Obama and some Senate Democrats insisted on using bipartisan legislative processes for an economic stimulus package to help the US recover from the Great Recession as well as an overhaul of the nation’s health care system.

“We cannot do the mistake of 2009 where they whittled down the program so that the amount of relief was so small that the recession lasted four or five years,” Mr Schumer told the NYDN.

“And then on the [Affordable Care Act], when they spent a year, a year and a half negotiating, and then didn't come to any agreement.”

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, told ABC News on Sunday he believes the Senate has the votes to pass Mr Biden’s $1.9trn bill, which, in its current form, sends $1,400 stimulus checks to most Americans taxpayers and provides an emergency injection of billions of dollars for state and local governments on the front lines of the pandemic.

“Yes, I believe that we do [have the votes] because it's hard for me to imagine any Democrat, no matter what state he or she may come from, who doesn't understand the need to go forward right now in an aggressive way to protect the working families of this country,” Mr Sanders said.

“Look, all of us will have differences of opinion. This is a $1.9 trillion bill. I have differences and concerns about this bill,” the senator said.

He continued: “But at the end of the day, we're going to support the President of the United States, and we're going to come forward, and we're going to do what the American people overwhelmingly want us to do. The polling is overwhelming. Republicans, Democrats, independents.”

Both Mr Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have now said they’re willing to cut their losses and move forward with a scheme to use the legislature’s budget reconciliation process as a vehicle to pass Mr Biden’s Covid relief plan without GOP support. Traditional Senate rules dictate that most legislation requires the support of 60 senators to shut down a filibuster — even though the US Constitution only requires a simple majority vote to pass legislation in both chambers of Congress. But passing the package on the premise that it is a “budget resolution” allows the majority party to sidestep the Senate’s de facto 60-vote threshold.

Mr Biden has made clear to his top advisers — and reporters — in recent days that he is prepared to spring into action on Covid relief on a partisan basis if Republicans don’t come to the negotiating table with a serious desire for compromise.

He would like to win “support from Republicans” for his $1.9trn aid bill “if we can get it,” he said when asked about using the budget reconciliation process to bypass Republican obstruction.

But he added this crucial remark: “The Covid relief has to pass. … There’s no ifs, ands or buts.”

On Sunday, one of Mr Biden’s top economic advisers told CNN the administration was still willing to sit down and compromise with Republicans on several of their bill’s elements, including narrowing who receives another round of stimulus checks.

“We want to get cash in the hands of families and businesses that need it the most,” said Brian Deese, the director of Mr Biden’s National Economic Council.

“That’s certainly a place where we’re willing to sit down and look at ways to make the entire package more effective,” Mr Deese said in response to a question about making the stimulus check programme more targeted.

Slimming down the stimulus check proposal has been one of the biggest goals of Senate Republicans since Mr Biden released his plan earlier this month.

Ohio GOP Senator Rob Portman said the benefit should only be allocated to Americans making less than $50,000 a year, or a family with a combined income of less than $100,000.

Mr Portman was one of the 10 Republican senators who sent a letter to Mr Biden on Sunday outlining their new $600bn Covid relief plan and expressing their desire to negotiate on a compromise bill.

The GOP senators, led by Maine’s Susan Collins, plan to release more details about their plan on Monday.

“We want to work in good faith with you and your administration to meet the health, economic and societal challenges of the Covid crisis,” they wrote, citing Mr Biden’s “calls for unity” as the country still recovers from the tumult of the Donald Trump presidency.

Ms Collins and her colleagues have not publicly released the specifics of their bill, but it is expected to reduce the stimulus check programme from $1,400 to $1,000 per eligible individual, while restricting who actually can receive the full benefit.

The GOP bill is also unlikely to include key liberal elements from Mr Biden’s proposal, such as hiking the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Mr Schumer panned the Republican proposal as fundamentally unserious, as it is not expected to include a single dollar for state and local governments dealing with the pandemic.

“Our Republican colleagues, most of them have been very negative — either don’t want to do anything, or want to do something minimal,” Mr Schumer told the NYDN on Sunday.

“President Biden believes — and I agree with him — we need a bold, strong action. Now, we’d like to do that with the Republicans, but if we can’t, we’ll have to go forward on our own using this process, reconciliation.”

The administration will be reviewing Republicans’ proposal throughout the day on Sunday, Mr Deese said, but a plan with a top-line price tag of less than 33 per cent of Mr Biden’s original proposal is unlikely to move the needle back towards bipartisan negotiations.

“You have to act now. There is no time to delay,” Mr Biden said on Friday ahead of a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and other top economic aides.

“The risk is not doing too much. The risk is not doing enough,” the president said.

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