Tuesday, June 22, 2021

in-focus

Biden to meet with Senate Republicans offering pandemic relief counterproposal


WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden intends to meet on Monday with 10 GOP senators who are calling on him to make a bipartisan deal instead of forging ahead with a party-line vote on his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan.

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The group announced plans Sunday to release an approximately $600 billion coronavirus relief package as a counterproposal to Biden's much larger plan, posing a test for the new president who campaigned on promises to unify Congress and the country.

The senators, led by Susan Collins, R-Maine, said that they would formally unveil the plan Monday, and that they requested a meeting with Biden. Biden and Collins subsequently spoke, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced late Sunday that the president had invited the 10 Republican lawmakers to the White House "for a full exchange of views."

The meeting will take place Monday, according to two people with knowledge of the plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official announcement had yet to be made.

The planned meeting comes as Democrats prepare to move forward this week to set up a partisan path for Biden's relief bill, which Republicans have dismissed as overly costly because of Congress has already committed to spending $4 trillion to fight the pandemic, including $900 billion in December.

The GOP proposal jettisons elements that have drawn Republican opposition, such as increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

It would also reduce the size of a new round of checks Biden wants to send to Americans, from $1,400 per individual to $1,000 - while significantly reducing the income limits that determine eligibility for the stimulus payments.

A $600 billion plan that is a small fraction of Biden's proposal probably will not draw much, if any, Democratic support. However, the GOP offer presents a challenge for Biden, who campaigned on promises of bipartisanship and must decide whether to rebuff the overture or make a genuine effort to find common ground across the aisle.

"We want to work in good faith with you and your administration to meet the health, economic and societal challenges of the covid crisis," the Republican lawmakers wrote, adding that they were responding to his "calls for unity."

Top Biden economic adviser Brian Deese said on CNN's "State of the Union" before the meeting was announced that Biden was open to an exchange of views on his plan. But Deese emphasized that speed was of the essence and refused to say whether Biden was willing to entertain a smaller overall cost.

"The president is uncompromising when it comes to the speed that we need to act at to address this crisis," Deese said.

"The provisions of the president's plan, the American Rescue Plan, are calibrated to the economic crisis that we face," Deese said.

The White House is pushing its plan amid signs of a broader economic slowdown and a continued wave of enormously high unemployment claims of close to 1 million a week. The emergence in the U.S. of highly transmissible coronavirus variants has also intensified fears that another wave of lockdowns will be necessary.

Because the Senate is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, it is significant that Republicans assembled 10 lawmakers to get behind the proposal. That means that, if Democrats were to join them, they could reach the 60-vote threshold necessary to pass legislation under regular Senate procedures.

Democrats are planning to skirt the 60-vote requirement using special budget rules that would allow the Biden package to pass with a simple majority vote. Democrats control the Senate because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast tie-breaking votes.

Democratic aides said the GOP proposal would not change their plans to move forward with the budget bill this week that would set the stage for party-line passage of Biden's plan.

Psaki's statement said Biden also spoke to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Sunday as they prepare to push his relief package.

"The key to getting robust job opportunities is to cease any delay, any inaction, any wait-and-see around this rescue plan," Jared Bernstein, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said on "Fox News Sunday."

"The American people could not care less about budget process. . . . They need relief and they need it now," Bernstein said.

Biden's plan would send $1,400 payments to individuals with incomes up to $75,000 per year, and couples making up to $150,000.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, one of the signers of the letter, said the GOP plan would lower those thresholds to $50,000 for individuals and $100,000 for couples. Instead of $1,400 checks, the GOP plan would propose $1,000 checks, according to Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., another member of the group.

The GOP plan would also reduce Biden's proposal for extending emergency federal unemployment benefits, which are set at $300 a week and will expire in mid-March. The Biden plan would increase those benefits to $400 weekly and extend them through September. The GOP plan would keep the payments at $300 per week and extend them through June, according to three people with knowledge of the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity ahead of an official announcement.

Portman criticized Democrats for their plans to go it alone, saying this approach would "jam Republicans and really jam the country."

The signers of the letter include eight Republican senators who are part of a bipartisan group that has conferred with Biden administration officials about the relief bill. In addition to Collins, Portman and Cassidy, these are Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Todd Young of Indiana, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Jerry Moran of Kansas. Also signing are Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

Cassidy strongly criticized Biden for not soliciting broader input from senators in both parties. Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," Cassidy said the Republican package amounted to $600 billion and was "targeted to the needs of the American people."

Cassidy also said Biden's push to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour would cost millions of jobs.

"You don't want bipartisanship. You want the patina of bipartisanship. … The president's team did not reach out to anybody in our group, either Democrat or Republican, when they fashioned their proposal," Cassidy said. "They've never reached out to us - that's the beginning of the bad faith."

Democrats bristled at Republican accusations that Biden's relief proposal would give too much in federal aid to affluent Americans, pointing to GOP support for the 2017 tax law that nonpartisan analysts cut taxes substantially for the wealthiest Americans.

"Reasonable people can have honorable differences on the precise income limits of emergency tax relief. But there's a degree of chutzpah in the GOP suddenly on their high horse on this point when they were just fine with permanently giving people who make over $5 million more tax relief than the bottom 60% of American taxpayers combined," said Gene Sperling, an economist who advised the Biden presidential campaign and served as former director of the White House National Economic Council under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The $900 billion relief bill Congress passed in December included $600 stimulus payments to individuals. Biden's plan to issue a new round of $1,400 checks would bring that figure to $2,000 - making good on promises he and other Democrats made that helped the party win two Senate seats in Georgia in early January. Those victories gave Democrats the majority in the Senate, and Democrats including the two new senators from Georgia have insisted they must make good on those promises.

"The entire Democratic Party came together behind the candidates in Georgia - we made promises to the American people," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said on ABC. "If politics means anything - if you're going to have any degree of credibility - you can't campaign on a series of issues … and then change your mind. That's not how it works. We made promises to the American people; we're going to keep those promises."

In addition to a new round of checks, a higher minimum wage and increased unemployment benefits, Biden's plan includes rental assistance and eviction forbearance, an increased child tax credit, some $130 billion to help schools reopen, hundreds of billions of dollars for cities and states, and $160 billion for a national vaccination plan, more testing and public health jobs.

Money for vaccinations - which Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said recently was key to helping the economy - has emerged as the one real area of bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill. The GOP plan would match Biden's call to devote $160 billion to vaccines, testing and related health care spending.

"With your support, we believe Congress can once again craft a relief package that will provide meaningful, effective assistance to the American people and set us on a path to recovery," the GOP senators wrote.

Published : February 01, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Erica Werner, Jeff Stein, Seung Min Kim