GOP courts Biden, who signals he might move without them

President Biden and Democrats are signaling they will move forward with a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill by using special budget rules to sidestep a GOP filibuster.

A day after Biden held a White House meeting with 10 Republican senators who support moving a much smaller package, Biden called into a meeting of Senate Democrats and urged them to go big and move quickly.  

While going “big” doesn’t rule out any agreement between the White House and Republicans, it suggests Biden wants to move forward with a much larger package than even centrist Republicans say they could support despite the president’s statements that he also wants to unify Washington and work with Republicans.

Biden met a group of 10 Republican senators — including one by conference call — at the White House Monday, leaving several of them with the impression that he might put the brakes on a Democratic effort to fast-track a partisan relief package in Congress in order to give more time for bipartisan negotiations.

But on Tuesday, his message to Senate Democrats in a lunchtime conference call was clear: go big and move fast on a COVID-19 relief bill.

“President Biden spoke about the need for Congress to respond boldly and quickly. He was very strong in emphasizing the need for a big, bold package. He said that he told Senate Republicans that the $600 billion that they proposed was way too small,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters after the Democratic meeting.

The president was backed up by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who warned that a relief bill closer to the $618 billion proposed by the 10 GOP Republicans could leave the economy struggling for years to fully recover.

Schumer said Biden and Yellen agree with him and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that if Congress settles for a smaller relief bill, “we’d be mired in the COVID crisis for years.”

But Republicans argue that the centerpiece of Biden’s plan — a proposal to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour — might actually hurt the economy, and they have a powerful ally in Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who announced Tuesday he does not support raising the federal minimum wage to $15.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who organized Monday’s GOP meeting with Biden, says a minimum wage increase should be moved separately.

“It is not relevant to treatment or the economic recovery or getting vaccines out,” she said Tuesday. “In fact, it would be very difficult for the hospitality industry, which has been particularly harmed.”

Manchin said Tuesday he wants to set the federal minimum wage at a level “that’s responsible and reasonable.” He said that would be $11 per hour, adjusted for inflation, in West Virginia.

Schumer needs all 50 members of his conference unified in order to pass a budget resolution that sets up the special track for passing a COVID-19 relief bill with a simple-majority vote later in the year.

Manchin on Tuesday voted with the other 49 members of the Democratic conference to advance the budget resolution but warned that any relief bill that passes under budget reconciliation rules to avoid a filibuster must be targeted and have substantial input from Republican colleagues.

“I will vote to move forward with the budget process because we must address the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis. But let me be clear — these are words I shared with President Biden — our focus must be on the COVID-19 crisis and Americans who have been most impacted by this pandemic,” Manchin said in a statement.

Manchin, whose vote is critical to passing Biden’s top legislative priority with a simple majority, declined to say how large a package he’s willing to support.

“I can’t tell you where the right numbers are, but when you have a good bipartisan input you can discuss and debate, that’s when you get a good program,” he said.

Biden will have to balance these competing factions on Capitol Hill to preserve his reputation as a pragmatic leader willing to work with the opposition while keeping his base happy.

Several of the GOP senators who met with Biden thought after the meeting that he might try to rein in Schumer and Pelosi from racing ahead with a partisan $1.9 trillion relief package.

“He did say that in his next conversations he needs to talk to Schumer and Pelosi and see where they can go, but as far as good-faith negotiation he’s willing to hear them out this proposal and see what he can do, even if it’s about passing a quick bill like this and then addressing the other things later,” said a Senate GOP aide who was briefed on the meeting, referring to the possibility of passing a smaller bipartisan relief bill with GOP votes before Democrats pass a larger partisan bill with 51 votes under budget reconciliation.

Other Republicans in the room with Biden on Monday got the distinct impression that the president might agree to move a bipartisan package outside the complicated budget reconciliation process. This path would require picking up 10 GOP votes in order to muster the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.

“That is clearly what we encouraged,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) who was in Monday’s meeting. “There was an exchange of views of ideas but also a promise to exchange on some of our sources and data and to build on this and explore where we might make some adjustments.”

“He didn’t say, ‘I’m going to call up Nancy and Chuck right now,’ but he gave me the assurance that ‘I heard you guys and we’re going to be figuring out how we move forward here.’ I would assume ‘moving forward here’ would be to share with the House and Senate leadership the outcome of our discussions,” she said.

Asked if Biden indicated he’d be willing to ask Democratic leaders to give bipartisan talks enough time to hammer out an agreement, Murkowski said: “He clearly understood us, he clearly knows — he understands what it means to be trying to work a deal and needing a little bit of space.”

But at the same time, Murkowski said the president “also hears pretty clearly the desire of the Democratic leadership and what they want to do” to move a large relief bill immediately.

“He was telling us we got folks on the other side who feel pretty strongly that they don’t want to be waiting around for Republican deals,” she added.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said, “On some of the key issues, whether it was individual assistance payments, some of the things we’re talking about for state funding, he was in an honest position of being willing to talk about it.”

Tillis said Biden “said he’s working with his majority” and cautioned “every step he takes toward us could potentially cost votes on the other side.”

“I think he wants to produce an outcome,” he added.

“We did talk about what things we could just go ahead and gain as consensus because time is of the essence. If you think about it, if we go into [budget] vote-a-rama this week and then we move into impeachment, it could be March before some of these priority items get sent to his desk,” Tillis said.

He said he thinks Biden is open to moving a smaller bipartisan package before the Democrats move a larger bill under budget reconciliation.

But other Republicans had a less optimistic takeaway from Monday’s meeting.

“I got the impression that he was trying to be cordial and trying to let us know that he appreciated the fact that we had reached out,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who attended the meeting by phone. “To be honest it did kind of feel to me that he thought that if he could do it without Republicans he was more than willing to do so.” 

Asked if Biden is open to breaking up his package by moving a bipartisan bill separate from the reconciliation process, Rounds said: “I didn’t hear that.”

Another Republican senator who met with Biden Monday said the president appears “conflicted” between working with moderate GOP senators and simply ramming his own $1.9 billion plan through Congress using budget reconciliation.

“I think he’s probably conflicted. I think he really does want to work with us and his advisers, and the Democrats up here are saying, ‘Don’t even try.’”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) agreed on Tuesday that Biden appears more willing than some of his top advisers to work with Republican lawmakers.

“He seemed himself willing to continue the conversation and to keep looking, but when I read the aftermath of the comments from like his spokesperson and I think there was another person who commented on it from his office, it seemed liked this is the end of that and we’re moving forward,” she said. 

Jordain Carney contributed. 

Tags Chuck Schumer Coronavirus COVID-19 Janet Yellen Joe Manchin Lisa Murkowski Mike Rounds Nancy Pelosi Shelley Moore Capito Susan Collins Thom Tillis

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