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Biden officials hold call with bipartisan group of senators on coronavirus relief plan

Officials in President Biden’s administration on Sunday held a call with a bipartisan group of senators to discuss the White House’s proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.

Several senators confirmed their participation in the call, with a couple of Democratic senators describing the conversation as “productive.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinBipartisan infrastructure deal takes fire from left and right Senate Judiciary begins investigation into DOJ lawmaker subpoenas Garland pledges review of DOJ policies amid controversy MORE (D-Ill.) categorized the discussion as “refreshing” and said it was “long overdue” to have the White House “fully engaged in addressing this pandemic with a focus on science and federal leadership.”

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“In the spirit of unity that we saw on the West Front of the Capitol on Wednesday, the Senate must come together on a bipartisan basis and provide the resources the American people need to survive this pandemic and this lengthy financial hardship,” he said.

Sen. Angus KingAngus KingProgressives want to tighten screws beyond Manchin and Sinema Senior Biden cyber nominees sail through Senate hearing Pentagon chief: Military has already started 'over-the-horizon' operations in Afghanistan MORE (I-Maine) said in a tweet that the call centered around “policy solutions,” adding that was ”notable in itself.”

“Let's keep working together to speed vaccine distribution and support Americans during this pandemic,” he posted.

Brian DeeseBrian DeeseOn The Money: Breaking down Biden's .8T American Families Plan | Powell voices confidence in Fed's handle on inflation | Wall Street basks in 'Biden boom' Biden proposes tax hikes for high-income Americans Democratic scramble complicates Biden's human infrastructure plan MORE, the National Economic Council director, hosted the private Zoom call that 16 senators, eight from each party, were invited to attend, according to reports from CNN and The Washington Post.

Senators on the call reportedly requested that relief be targeted to those who need it most and called for vaccine distribution to be the top priority.

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Lawmakers from the upper chamber probed White House officials on the call, which lasted more than an hour, about where stimulus money is essential, what the justification is for some high spending and whether the proposed $1,400 direct checks could be tailored more toward those in need, several people involved told the Post and CNN.

Louisa TerrellLouisa TerrellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by TikTok - Day 1 goes to Dems as GOP fumes at Trump lawyers Meet President Biden's legislative affairs chief Biden makes inroads with progressives MORE, the White House director of legislative affairs, and Jeff ZientsJeff ZientsBiden meets with UK's Johnson ahead of G-7 Overnight Health Care: White House unveils plan to donate 25M vaccine doses abroad | US COVID-19 cases, deaths fall to lowest levels since March 2020 | Poll: Majority support Medicare negotiations for drug prices White House unveils plan to donate 25 million vaccine doses abroad MORE, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, also joined the call reportedly organized by Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinIn Congress, what goes on behind closed doors? Jayapal to Dems: Ditch bipartisanship, go it alone on infrastructure Harris discusses voting rights with advocates in South Carolina MORE (D-W.Va.).

The White House did not immediately return a request for comment. 

Before the call, Deese told reporters he wanted to emphasize to the senators that “we’re at a precarious moment for the virus and the economy,” noting that “decisive action” is needed to avoid “falling into a very serious economic hole,” according to the Post.

The $1.9 trillion plan also includes an extension of emergency unemployment benefits past mid-March and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, in addition to the direct checks. 

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Several Republicans have criticized the Biden administration’s plan as too expensive, with GOP senators specifically expressing concern about the minimum wage increase on the call, two people familiar told the Post.

“There are still a lot of unanswered questions, most notably, how did the administration come up with $1.9 trillion dollars required, given that our figures show that there’s still about $1.8 trillion left to be spent,” Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate confirms Garland's successor to appeals court Bipartisan infrastructure deal takes fire from left and right Outrage grows as Justice seeks to contain subpoena fallout MORE (R-Maine) told the Post. “We hope to get more data documenting the need from them.”

Several Republicans have suggested Biden and the Democrats may have more luck passing individual pieces of the relief bill rather than the comprehensive package.

“The president wants to extend unemployment benefits if people are still unemployed, that is certainly something we would look at. We were of the view last time that states needed help, some rescue for states and localities that may have suffered a reduction in their revenues. That's appropriate, but the total figure is pretty shocking, if you will,” Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Biden's European trip Pelosi: 'No intention' of abandoning Democrats' infrastructure goals What the Democrats should be doing to reach true bipartisanship MORE (R-Utah) said Sunday morning.

But a person on the call told CNN the White House still seeks to move forward with the $1.9 trillion package instead of dividing parts of it into smaller bills. 

"President Biden and his advisers will continue to engage and consult bipartisan groups of lawmakers, including today, to make the case why urgent action is needed to get relief to hard-hit communities and families and more resources to public health officials so we can ramp up vaccinations," a White House official told the network.