Biden faces ‘unity’ test in meeting with GOP senators on COVID relief


(WASHINGTON) — With a group of 10 Republican senators officially offering a counterproposal to President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill, the president is set to face a real test of his campaign promise to work across the aisle and bring unity back to a politically fractured Washington.

Biden is set to meet with a group led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, at the White House Monday afternoon. Collins’ group, which includes both moderate and conservative Republicans, wrote a letter to Biden Sunday, proposing a counteroffer to his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan. Biden subsequently got in touch with Collins to invite the group to a face-to-face meeting in the Oval Office, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

The pressure on Biden is coming from both sides.

The meeting comes amid a push among Democrats on Capitol Hill to use an alternative, fast-track budgetary tool that would let them proceed without Republican support. Congressional Democratic leaders said last week that GOP proposals did not go far enough, and on Friday, Biden signaled openness to potentially moving forward without Republicans.

The GOP group unveiled the details of their counterproposal on Monday morning. At $618 billion, the package is about one-third the price tag of Biden’s $1.9 trillion starting offer. The GOP package matches a $160 billion provision for COVID-19 vaccination, testing, and related health care costs. It also preserves a $12 billion fund for food stamps and nutrition assistance.

But because the Republican offer would cut down many of Biden’s proposals — it’s an open question how far he can compromise without what he and Democrats say would be the mistake of “going too small.”

The GOP senators’ plan extends unemployment insurance at $300 per week rather than $400, and lowers direct payments to Americans from $1400 for those making up to $75,000 to $1000 for those making up to $40,000. The Republican package offers less funding for the continuation of the Paycheck Protection Program, and only provides $20 billion for schools, compared with the Biden administration’s $170 billion proposal.

Cut from the GOP package entirely is a provision to lift the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, and funding for state and local governments.

“Mr. President, we recognize your calls for unity and want to work in good faith with your Administration to meet the health, economic, and societal challenges of the COVID crisis,” the Republican group said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sunday the proposal did not go far enough — particularly since it omitted money for states and localities.

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

Biden, a 36-year veteran of the Senate, has always prided himself on his deal-making ability, and expressed optimism throughout the presidential campaign, and during his first week in office, about reaching a consensus with Republicans on a COVID-19 relief bill.

But Friday, Biden for the first time acknowledged the reality that he might not be able to form a consensus.

“I support passing COVID-19 relief with support from Republicans if we can get it. But COVID relief has to pass. There’s no ifs, ands or buts,” Biden said, suggesting he might need to use a Senate budgetary procedure that would allow him to pass the bill with no Republican support.

On Sunday, Biden’s top economic adviser Brian Deese said administration officials are willing to consider a smaller package, especially in regard to the direct payments.

“We’re open to that idea. We’re open to ideas across the board. What I want to reinforce is that if we’re going to look at ways of targeting we need to look at how this plan is targeted overall,” Deese, the director of the White House’s National Economic Council said Sunday in an interview with CNN.

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