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Senior GOP senators object to direct payments at caucus meeting

President TrumpDonald TrumpNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 MORE’s signature proposal to send $1,200 direct payments to the public received pointed pushback from senior Senate Republicans at a meeting Thursday where GOP negotiators unveiled their version of a $1 trillion stimulus plan.

The most controversial element is a plan to send out $1,200 checks to people earning up to $75,000 and couples earning up to $150,000, and to phase out the subsidies quickly after those thresholds.

Despite the pushback, GOP senators still expect Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe bizarre back story of the filibuster The Bible's wisdom about addressing our political tribalism Democrats don't trust GOP on 1/6 commission: 'These people are dangerous' MORE (R-Ky.) to unveil the GOP plan on Thursday.

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That timeline, however, could be jeopardized by the internal disagreements over direct payments.

Once the GOP agrees to its own proposal, McConnell will negotiate with Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerThe bizarre back story of the filibuster Hillicon Valley: Biden signs order on chips | Hearing on media misinformation | Facebook's deal with Australia | CIA nominee on SolarWinds House Rules release new text of COVID-19 relief bill MORE (N.Y.). 

Schumer may use GOP divisions over direct payments to shift resources to his priority: expanding the nation’s unemployment benefits program.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyBlack Caucus members lobby Biden to tap Shalanda Young for OMB head On The Money: Senate panels postpone Tanden meetings in negative sign | Biden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers Passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy MORE (R-Ala.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission Graham: Trump will 'be helpful' to all Senate GOP incumbents John Boehner tells Cruz to 'go f--- yourself' in unscripted audiobook asides: report MORE (R-S.C.) raised objections to the direct-payment proposal after the meeting.

“I personally think that if we’re going to help people, we ought to direct the cash payments maybe as a supplement to unemployment not to the people that are still working every day, just a blanket cash check to everybody in America that making up to $75,000. I don’t know the logic to that,” Shelby told reporters after the meeting.

Graham made a similar argument to GOP colleagues.

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“I’d rather take that $250 billion and put it in a system that will give people sustainable income,” Graham said. “Direct payments make sense when the economy is beginning to restart, makes no sense now because it’s just money."

 “What I want is income, not one check. I want you to get a check you can count on every week, not one week,” Graham added. “Here’s what I’m focused on: You have unemployment insurance that is totally inadequate, let’s beef it up."

Graham said he supports a small-business relief plan that Senate Small Business Committee Chairman Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioWatch live: Day 2 at CPAC DeSantis derides 'failed Republican establishment' at CPAC The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Divided House on full display MORE (R-Fla.) is working on with Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCollins urges Biden to revisit order on US-Canada border limits Media circles wagons for conspiracy theorist Neera Tanden Why the 'Never-Trumpers' flopped MORE (R-Maine) to provide loans to businesses that would be forgiven if they avoid layoffs.

Graham noted there isn’t anything in the GOP plan to beef up unemployment benefits, a top priority of Democrats, and said he would favor that approach over simply sending people checks.

He said the Democratic proposal makes “perfect sense to me” because the maximum unemployment benefit in South Carolina is $326 per week.

“I am willing to supplement that up to, let’s say, $80,000 in income. Say 75 percent of $80,000 should get everybody through the two or three months, whatever time period we got, then we’ll re-evaluate,” he added.

Graham said he doesn’t know whether direct payments will be included in the final bill although some GOP senators say it has little chance of being removed from the Republican proposal given Trump’s strong support.

He predicted the GOP plan would probably come out Friday though other colleagues offered more optimistic timelines. 

Other GOP senators have raised objections to direct payments.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOvernight Health Care: 50 million coronavirus vaccines given | Pfizer news | Biden health nominees Rand Paul criticized for questioning of transgender health nominee Haley isolated after Trump fallout MORE (R-Ky.) on Wednesday said, “I think the best way to help people who are out of work from quarantine and the coronavirus is through unemployment benefits.”

“I think it should be related to employment or unemployment,” he added. “If you’re still employed and doing well, why would we want to send you $1,000? It just seems to me fiscally irresponsible just to send everybody money.”

There’s more Republican consensus on providing $250 billion to $300 billion in liquidity to small businesses and approving a series of business tax-relief measures.

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Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordRepublicans see Becerra as next target in confirmation wars Overnight Health Care: US surpasses half a million COVID deaths | House panel advances Biden's .9T COVID-19 aid bill | Johnson & Johnson ready to provide doses for 20M Americans by end of March 11 GOP senators slam Biden pick for health secretary: 'No meaningful experience' MORE (R-Okla.) said the small-business component of the stimulus package “has the greatest bang for the buck,” adding “a one-time check that comes to someone is not as significant as knowing my job’s going to be there and I’m going to be able to maintain my job.”

Rubio has proposed giving businesses forgivable loans to pay for payroll, business, rent and mortgage expenses. They would not have to be repaid if employers keep workers employed. The loans would be handled through local banks and credit unions to eliminate excess government bureaucracy.

Another controversial topic is how to help U.S. airlines, which spent tens of billions of dollars in recent years on stock buybacks to juice up share prices but now face the possibility of bankruptcy. Airlines earlier this week requested $30 billion in grants from the administration but GOP lawmakers have rejected the idea.

Lankford acknowledged that some industries such as airlines “are going to need some loans at this point” but said he’s “not supportive of individual dollars and grants being targeted toward this industry or this industry.”   

While not in the current GOP stimulus plan, some Republicans are rallying around a proposal floated Thursday by Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesIndigenous groups post billboards urging senators to confirm Deb Haaland Kennedy apologizes for calling Haaland a 'whack job' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Ahead: One-shot vax, easing restrictions, fiscal help MORE (R-Mont.) to provide a federal backstop for COVID-19 vaccine research.

Under his proposal, pharmaceutical companies would be reimbursed for unsuccessful research efforts, which would incentivize them to devote more resources to developing a vaccine, according to GOP lawmakers who heard his plan at Thursday’s meeting.

Even though there are serious divisions over the direct payments, GOP senators are under intense pressure to get a bill passed as soon as possible.

“If we don’t, we’re going to get our asses kicked,” Graham said.