Biden, GOP senators agree to more COVID-19 talks after ‘excellent’ meeting

President Biden and a group of 10 GOP senators agreed on Monday to hold additional negotiations on coronavirus relief, as they look to find room to craft a bipartisan agreement. 

The group of Republicans met with Biden at the White House on Monday for roughly two hours, significantly longer than either side had expected the meeting would last. Both sides characterized the meeting as productive, though the White House indicated that Biden would not back down from his demand for a robust package despite opposition from Republicans. 

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has taken the lead on trying to negotiate a deal, called the meeting “very productive” and “cordial.” 

“It was a very good exchange of views. I wouldn’t say that we came together on a package tonight, no one expected that in a two hour meeting. But what we did agree to do was follow up and talk further at the staff level and amongst ourselves and with the president and vice president on how we can continue to work together on this very important issue,” Collins said outside of the White House on Monday night. 

The White House in a statement called the meeting “productive” and “substantive” but added that Biden “reiterated that while he is hopeful that the Rescue Plan can pass with bipartisan support, a reconciliation package is a path to achieve that end.” The White House also made clear that Biden believes the $618 billion proposal unveiled by the GOP senators falls short.

“While there were areas of agreement, the President also reiterated his view that Congress must respond boldly and urgently, and noted many areas which the Republican senators’ proposal does not address,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “The President also made clear that the American Rescue Plan was carefully designed to meet the stakes of this moment, and any changes in it cannot leave the nation short of its pressing needs.”

The meeting marked Biden’s first visit he’s had with lawmakers in the Oval Office, a fact Collins touted to reporters. 

“[It] was an excellent meeting, and we’re very appreciative that as his first official meeting in the Oval Office the president chose to spend so much time with us in a frank and very useful discussion,” she said. 

The GOP group used the sit-down meeting to explain their $618 billion coronavirus proposal to Biden, Vice President Harris and top aides. The White House also provided more details on its $1.9 trillion package after senators in both parties pushed for more details on how the administration came up with its proposal. 

Collins — the only GOP senator to speak after the meeting — didn’t address a decision by Democratic leadership to lay the groundwork this week for passing a coronavirus bill by a simple majority, allowing them to bypass GOP support if they need to. 

Instead, she noted Congress has previously been able to negotiate bipartisan coronavirus relief bills. Many of the senators were part of the so-called 908 coalition that proposed a framework late last year that leadership credited with breaking a months-long stalemate. 

“We have demonstrated in the last year that we can come together on a bipartisan package. … I am hopeful that we can once again pass a sixth bipartisan COVID relief package,” Collins said. 

But there are big differences between the package offered by the GOP group and the larger $1.9 trillion one backed by Democrats. While Biden would prefer to sign a bill with GOP support, the White House made clear Monday that he would support Democrats passing the bill through reconciliation with a simple majority.

The GOP proposal includes $160 billion in pandemic response funding including protective equipment and more money for vaccine distribution. It also extends the $300 per week federal unemployment benefit through June 30.

The bill includes a $1,000 direct payment to Americans, compared with the $1,400 direct payment in Biden’s plans, with $500 for adult dependents and children. The proposal also lowers the income cap for qualifying for the direct assistance.

Under previous coronavirus bills, individuals who make up to $75,000 would receive the check, with the amount of the payment phasing out after that. But under the GOP proposal, individuals who make up to $40,000 would get a $1,000 check, with the amount of the check phasing out altogether at $50,000.

It also includes $20 billion in additional funding for schools, $20 billion in child care funding, an additional $50 billion in small business aid, $12 billion for nutrition assistance and $4 billion for behavioral health resources.

But incoming Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) warned that the GOP offer didn’t go far enough, previewing the backlash Biden is likely to face if he agrees to go substantially lower. 

“The package outlined by 10 Senate Republicans is far too small to provide the relief the American people need. In particular, a three-month extension of jobless benefits is a non-starter. … We can’t keep jumping from cliff to cliff every few months,” Wyden said in a statement, adding that an “extension of benefits for at least six months is essential.”

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), one of the caucus’s more moderate members, also warned that he didn’t think the GOP plan was big enough. 

“I think it’s got to be bigger than that. … If we have to come back time and time and time again, I just don’t think that’s good for the economy, I don’t think it’s good for certainty,” Tester said. 

The meeting comes hours after Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) filed a budget resolution that will include instructions to craft a $1.9 trillion bill that Democrats could pass under reconciliation, which allows them to avoid a 60-vote legislative filibuster. 

“Democrats welcome the ideas and input of our Senate Republican colleagues. The only thing we cannot accept is a package that is too small or too narrow to pull our country out of this emergency. We cannot repeat the mistake of 2009,” Schumer said from the Senate floor.

— Morgan Chalfant contributed.

— Updated 8:57 p.m.

Tags Charles Schumer Coronavirus coronavirus aid coronavirus relief coronavirus stimulus COVID-19 Jen Psaki Jon Tester Nancy Pelosi Ron Wyden Susan Collins

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