By Ken Bredemeier
WASHINGTON – U.S. President Joe Biden is set to host a group of 10 Republican senators for talks Monday about a new round of coronavirus economic relief.
The White House meeting comes after the Republicans sent a letter to Biden, urging him Sunday to negotiate his proposed $1.9 trillion package rather than trying to get it approved solely with the votes of congressional Democrats.
Republicans have sought a much smaller round of aid, including stricter limits on who would qualify for direct payments.
“In the spirit of bipartisanship and unity, we have developed a COVID-19 relief framework that builds on prior COVID assistance laws, all of which passed with bipartisan support,” the Republican senators wrote. “Our proposal reflects many of your stated priorities, and with your support, we believe that this plan could be approved quickly by Congress with bipartisan support.”
Senator Bill Cassidy told the “Fox News Sunday” show the Republican plan would cost about $600 billion.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president invited the Republicans “for a full exchange of views.”
“With the virus posing a grave threat to the country, and economic conditions grim for so many, the need for action is urgent, and the scale of what must be done is large. The American Rescue Plan – including $1400 relief checks, a substantial investment in fighting COVID and reopening schools, aid to small businesses and hurting families, and funds to keep first responders on the job (and more) – is badly needed,” she said in a statement Sunday. “As leading economists have said, the danger now is not in doing too much: it is in doing too little. Americans of both parties are looking to their leaders to meet the moment.”
Brian Deese, the director of Biden’s National Economic Council, told CNN that the president’s proposal is “calibrated to the economic crisis that we face,” but that Biden would look at the Republican proposal.
Deese said Biden is “uncompromising when it comes to the speed we need to act at to address this crisis,” including a reeling economy, a sluggish rollout of coronavirus vaccinations across the country and a steadily increasing U.S. coronavirus death toll. It now stands at more than 441,000, according to the Johns Hopkins University.
Biden has said Democrats will push through their version of the relief package on a party line vote in Congress if they need to rather than engage in protracted negotiations.
Biden wants to increase the national government’s unemployment assistance from $300 to $400 a week on top of less generous state assistance and extend the extra stipend from March to September. The Republican plan seeks to maintain the $300 level for an unspecified period.
Biden wants to send $1,400 checks to millions of Americans, all but the biggest wage earners, on top of $600 checks approved in a $900 billion relief package signed by former President Donald Trump in late December.
The Republicans called for “more targeted assistance…for those families who need assistance the most, including their dependent children and adults.”
The lawmakers said they supported Biden’s call for $160 billion for vaccine distribution and more testing and tracing for the virus, and said they support more aid for businesses and measures needed to reopen schools for in-person instruction.
Deese declined to say what overall amount Biden would be willing to agree to.
But he said the president was willing to target the cash stipends so that money does not go to bigger wage earners,
“We want to get cash into the pockets of people who need it the most,” Deese said.
“The immediate focus,” he said, “is putting a floor under the economic crisis.”
Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, one of the 10 Republicans calling for a compromise with Biden, said, “Let’s focus on those who are struggling.”
He said it was “not in the interest of the Democratic Party to ram through” its version of the relief bill. “If you can’t find bipartisanship on COVID-19, I don’t know where you can,” Portman said. COVID-19 is the illness caused by the coronavirus.