Biden and Republicans have ‘excellent’ meeting on Covid relief, but agreement still a long shot

‘It was a very good exchange of views,’ Senator Collins says of White House meeting

Griffin Connolly
Washington
Tuesday 02 February 2021 01:30
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Ten Republican senators met with Joe Biden for more than two hours on Monday in a long-shot effort to come together on a sixth bipartisan Covid relief bill.

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the leader of the GOP gang of 10, said: “It was a very good exchange of views.

“I wouldn't say that we came together on a package tonight. No one expected that in a two-hour meeting. But what we did agree to do is to follow up and talk further at the staff level, and amongst ourselves, and with the president and vice president on how we can continue to work together on this very important issue.”

Ms Collins declined to take questions from reporters after roughly two-and-a-half minutes of remarks.

But she did thank Mr Biden for holding his first official congressional meeting as president with Republican members of the Senate, an unusual display of cross-party comity.

“It was an excellent meeting, and we're very appreciative that as his first official meeting in the Oval Office the president chose to spend so much time with us in a frank and very useful discussion,” Ms Collins said.

While Mr Biden has signalled he is keen to gain bipartisan support for a Covid deal, the 10 Republicans who met with him on Monday have put forth a proposal worth $618bn – less than a third of the $1.9 trillion package the president could pass with slim Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer took the first massive step towards passing Mr Biden’s legislation on a party-line basis on Monday by filing  what is known as a “joint budget resolution.”

That joint budget resolution triggers a special “reconciliation” process that allows majority-party negotiators from each chamber to sidestep minority opposition in the Senate, which usually requires 60 votes to end a filibuster attempt and pass legislation.

With 50 Democratic (or Democratic-caucusing) senators plus Vice President Kamala Harris ready to cast a tiebreaker vote, Mr Schumer likely has the votes to send a partisan Covid package to the Oval Office for Mr Biden’s signature.

Ms Collins on Monday urged her Democratic colleagues to let bipartisan negotiations continue instead of ramming through the administration’s $1.9trn behemoth, which is unlikely to garner GOP support. Ms Collins noted that just within the last 12 months, a divided Congress – with Donald Trump in the White House – came together on five separate Covid relief deals worth nearly $4 trillion in total.

“Let me just say that we have demonstrated in the last year that we can come together on a bipartisan package dealing with the Covid crisis. In fact, we've done that not just once or twice. We've done it five times,” Ms Collins said, adding that she is “hopeful” lawmakers can find common ground for a sixth deal.

Each of those deals, however, left Democrats clamouring for more, with several progressives defecting on the final vote.

The most recent legislation – a bipartisan $900bn deal from December – did not include any emergency aid for state, local, tribal, and territorial governments whose budgets have been shattered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Such aid has been an elusive Democratic priority for nearly 10 months.

Mr Schumer and Ms Pelosi’s resolution filed on Monday provides a roadmap for the final contours of a partisan Democratic bill:

  • $1,400 stimulus checks for individual taxpayers as well as $1,400 per child;
  • a federal supplement of $400 per week for Americans receiving state unemployment benefits, lasting through September; and
  • $350bn in aid to state, local, tribal, and territorial governments.

The joint resolution also provides billions of dollars in funding to help reopen in-person classes at K-12 schools, colleges and universities, ramp-up testing across the country, and boost the national vaccine distribution programme, among dozens of other provisions.

Republicans’ $618bn proposal does not include any emergency relief aid for state and local governments, and has narrower outlays for stimulus checks and the federal unemployment supplement.

Mr Schumer on Monday said he would “welcome Republican input” on the final reconciliation bill.

“There is nothing in this process that will preclude it from being bipartisan,” the majority leader said.

But he added that he and the Democratic committee leaders would shut down GOP proposals to drastically curtail the bill’s scope, saying he and other progressives had learned hard lessons about Republicans insisting on “bipartisanship” as a guise for obstructing Barack Obama’s agenda to jolt the recession economy in 2009.

“The only thing we cannot accept is a package that is too small or too narrow to pull our country out of this emergency. We cannot repeat the mistake of 2009. And we must act very soon to get this assistance to those so desperately in need,” Mr Schumer said on Monday.

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