Senate

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 Durbin (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."

"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 King (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 Deese, 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.

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 Terrell, the White House director of legislative affairs, and Jeff Zients, the White House's COVID-19 response coordinator, also joined the call reportedly organized by Sen. Joe Manchin (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. 

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 Collins (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 Romney (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.

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