Biden Shows Flexibility But Tells House to 'Go Big' on Aid

Talks With Dems On Covid Relief

AP News
February 03, 2021 - 12:19 pm
Vice President Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden, and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y., during a meeting to discuss a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, in Washington.

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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By LISA MASCARO and JOSH BOAK Associated Press

 

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden told House Democrats on Wednesday he's “not married" to an absolute number on his $1.9 trillion COVID rescue plan but Congress needs to “act fast” on relief for the pandemic and the economic crisis.

Biden also said he doesn't want to budge from his proposed $1,400 in direct payments to Americans.

“Look, we got a lot of people hurting in our country today,” Biden said. “We need to act. We need to act fast. We need to restore the soul of the country.”

Biden's remarks to the Democratic caucus were relayed by two people who requested anonymity to discuss the private conference call.

The meeting with House Democrats comes as the president steps up his public engagements with lawmakers on pandemic aid and an economic recovery package, together his first legislative priority.

While Biden is trying to build bipartisan support from Republicans, he is also prepared to rely on the Democratic majority in Congress to approve his top agenda item. Biden was expected to reiterate that message later Wednesday during an Oval Office meeting with top Democratic senators.

He told House Democrats they could be flexible on some numbers but should not back down on the size or scope of the aid.

“We have to go big, not small,” Biden told the Democrats. “I’ve got your back, and you’ve got mine."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and top Democratic senators chairing various committees involved in drafting the package are meeting later Wednesday at the White House.

On Tuesday, Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen joined the Democratic senators for a private virtual meeting, both declaring the Republicans' $618 billion offer was too small.

As the White House reaches for a bipartisan bill, Democrats marshaled their ever-slim Senate majority, voting 50-49 on Tuesday to start a lengthy process for approving Biden's bill with or without Republican support. The goal is to have COVID-19 relief approved by March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid expire.

Schumer said of the Republican proposal: “If we did a package that small, we’d be mired in the COVID crisis for years.”

Biden is emphasizing the need not to forget working and middle-class families — even those like nurses and pipefitters making $150,000 for a family of four.

Earlier in the week, Biden met with 10 Republican senators who were pitching their $618 billion alternative, and told them it was too small. He said he won't delay aid in hopes of winning GOP support. But conversations with Republicans continue.

The outcome will test the new president as he strives to unify the country while confronting a rising COVID-19 death toll and stubbornly high jobless numbers, with political risks for all sides. Vaccine distributions, direct payments to households, school reopenings and business aid are all on the line.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell criticized the Democrats for pressing ahead largely on their own. He said he had spoken to Biden before his meeting with the 10 GOP senators.

“They’ve chosen a totally partisan path,” McConnell said. “That’s unfortunate.”

The two sides are far apart. The Republican group of 10 senators has been focused primarily on the health care crisis and smaller, $1,000 direct payments aid to Americans while Biden wants the $1,400 payments and a more sweeping rescue plan for households, local governments and a partly shuttered economy.

White House officials have previously cited the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as evidence of broad support for their plan, but the nation's most prominent business group on Tuesday urged a compromise.

“There ought to be common ground for a bipartisan proposal that can become law,” Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer, said in an interview.

The cornerstone of the GOP plan is $160 billion for the health care response — vaccine distribution, a “massive expansion” of testing, protective gear and money for rural hospitals, similar to what Biden has proposed for aid specific to the pandemic.

But from there, the two plans drastically diverge. Biden proposes $170 billion for schools, compared with $20 billion in the Republican plan. Republicans also would give nothing to states, money that Democrats argue is just as important, with $350 billion in Biden’s plan to keep police, fire and other workers on the job.

The GOP's $1,000 direct payments would go to fewer people — those earning up to $40,000 a year, or $80,000 for couples. Biden's bigger payments would extend to higher income levels, up to $300,000 for some families.

The Republicans offer $40 billion for Paycheck Protection Program business aid. But gone are Democratic priorities such as a gradual lifting of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

According to Schumer, Biden told Democratic senators he had let the Republicans know “he’s willing to make some modifications."

But both Biden and Yellen recalled the lessons of the government response to the 2009 financial crisis, which some have since said was inadequate as conditions worsened.

Winning the support of 10 Republicans would be significant, potentially giving Biden the votes needed in the 50-50 Senate to reach the 60-vote threshold typically required to advance legislation. Vice President Kamala Harris is the tie-breaker.

But Democrats pushed ahead with Tuesday's vote, laying groundwork for eventual approval under the budget reconciliation process that would allow the bill to pass with a 51-vote Senate majority.

The vote opened 50 hours of debate, with votes on proposed amendments expected later this week. The House is expected to launch a similar process.

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Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Jonathan Lemire, Alexandra Jaffe, Darlene Superville and Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.

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