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Biden will meet with 10 Republican senators as they float smaller $618 billion Covid relief plan

President Joe Biden speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 29, 2021.

Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images

President Joe Biden will meet with 10 Republican senators Monday as he decides whether to slim his coronavirus relief proposal to win GOP votes or forge ahead with only Democrats.

The lawmakers put forward a counter offer to Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue package on Sunday. The $618 billion plan would, among other measures:

  • Send a smaller $1,000 direct payment, which starts to phase out at a lower $40,000 income threshold for individuals
  • Extend $300 per week federal unemployment benefits through June 30
  • Put $20 billion into a national vaccine program
  • Inject $20 billion into K-12 schools
  • Not include any state and local government support, a priority for Democrats

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., dismissed the GOP plan as inadequate on Sunday as his party warns that failure to spend now will cause more pain in the coming years. As he meets with Republicans, Biden will try to balance a professed desire to work across the aisle with his calls to act decisively to mitigate the health and economic crises.

As the White House holds talks with Republicans, Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress, will prepare to pass a relief bill without their GOP colleagues. The House plans to move forward this week with the budget reconciliation process, which would allow legislation to get through the Senate with a simple majority.

Biden also spoke Sunday to Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said White House press secretary Jen Psaki in a statement announcing the president’s outreach to Republicans. Biden “is grateful that Congress is prepared to begin action” on his rescue bill, she added.

Psaki made the case for Biden’s proposal, which includes $1,400 direct payments, a $400 per week jobless benefit supplement, $350 billion in state and local government aid and $20 billion for a national vaccine program.

“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,” she said.

Biden has left the door open to passing a bill without Republicans if he cannot reach a deal with GOP lawmakers.

“I support passing Covid relief with support from Republicans if we can get it,” he told reporters Friday. “But the Covid relief has to pass, there’s no ifs, ands or buts.”

Democrats would need 10 Senate Republican votes to overcome a filibuster and pass a relief bill. Winning over the group headed to the White House on Monday would give Democrats enough support to get legislation through the chamber.

However, the sides face a challenge in finding a compromise between the $1.9 trillion and $618 billion price tags.

The senators meeting with Biden include several from the bipartisan group that crafted the framework for the $900 billion relief plan passed in December. The Republicans are:

  • Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia
  • Bill Cassidy of Louisiana
  • Susan Collins of Maine
  • Jerry Moran of Kansas
  • Lisa Murkowski of Alaska
  • Rob Portman of Ohio
  • Mitt Romney of Utah
  • Mike Rounds of South Dakota
  • Thom Tillis of North Carolina
  • Todd Young of Indiana

“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,” they wrote in their letter to Biden. “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.”

Their proposal would scale back Biden’s in multiple ways. First, direct payment recipients would get $400 fewer. The plan would also start phasing checks out at $40,000 per year in income for individuals, versus $75,000 in the president’s proposal. The checks would be capped at $50,000 in income in the GOP proposal.

The offer would keep the $300 weekly unemployment benefit in place through June, while Biden’s would set a $400 per week supplement through September. The GOP plan also would not send any new relief to state and local governments, neglecting a Democratic priority.

The $20 billion for schools set out by Republicans compares with $170 billion for K-12 schools and higher education institutions in Biden’s plan.

The push for another aid package comes as the government rushes to vaccinate Americans before more transmissible Covid-19 variants spread widely. More than 25 million people have now received at least one vaccine dose, while at least 5.6 million have had both shots, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While new Covid-19 cases have slowed in the U.S., the outbreak is killing an average of more than 3,000 Americans each day.

U.S. GDP grew by 4% in the fourth quarter, but it fell by 3.5% for the full year in 2020. More than 18 million people were receiving unemployment benefits as of last month.

Despite the sluggish recovery, Republicans will have trouble bringing some colleagues to support even a slimmed down plan. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., downplayed the need for spending outside of vaccine distribution funds on Monday.

“I just don’t think there’s a good case for redoing this,” he told CNBC.

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