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GOP blames White House staff for lack of COVID-19 relief deal

Senate Republicans are venting their frustration over what they see as long odds to negotiate a bipartisan COVID-19 relief bill with President Biden by blaming his staff for standing in the way.

Republican senators who met with Biden at the White House on Monday told colleagues after the meeting that White House chief of staff Ron KlainRon Klain White House 'horrified' by Indianapolis shooting Forgiving K in school loans would free 36 million student borrowers from debt: data Overnight Defense: Biden makes his Afghanistan decision MORE was standing at the back of the room, shaking his head “no” throughout the meeting.

“There’s certainly a mixed signal from him on the unity message,” said Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerBiden administration faces big decision on whether to wade into Dakota Access fight OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Supreme Court declines to hear challenge to Obama marine monument designation | Interior reverses course on tribal ownership of portion of Missouri river | White House climate adviser meets with oil and gas companies Senate GOP pushes back on list of participants in oil and gas leasing forum MORE (R-N.D.), who was briefed on the White House meeting by colleagues.

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Cramer said Biden was “very engaged and well-prepared” for the meeting “but I also heard that his chief of staff stood at the back of the room and shook his head ‘no’ for every point.”

“That’s what we were told,” he added.

Senior administration officials said GOP senators should be more focused on passing relief legislation than pointing the finger at White House advisers for not agreeing to an underfunded proposal.

And a White House official pushed back on the griping. 

“Republicans came to the meeting in good faith, but it appears they’d rather play the blame game than have a substantive conversation about this bill,” the official said.

“Republicans were good with $160 billion for state and local funding when Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFreedom Caucus member condemns GOP group pushing 'Anglo-Saxon political traditions' MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell's new free speech site to ban certain curse words Secret Facebook groups of special operations officers include racist comments, QAnon posts: report MORE was president, and that number now is zero,” the official said, referring to the group of 10 senators’ proposal.  

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“If they want to have a serious conversation about a relief package that gets help to the folks who need it, let’s start with how much in local funding they were willing to give Donald Trump,” the source said.    

Republicans who sat down with Biden for more than two hours thought they made good progress and were surprised when White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiBiden, Japan's PM focus on China, North Korea in first bilateral meeting Castro confirms he's stepping down as Cuban leader White House reverses course on refugee cap after Democratic eruption MORE immediately issued a statement reining in GOP expectations of a deal.

Psaki said Biden “reiterated his view that Congress must respond boldly and urgently and noted many areas which the Republican senators’ proposal does not address.”

She said the president “made clear” that his $1.9 trillion plan “was designed to meet the stakes of this moment and any changes in it cannot leave the nation short of its pressing needs” and emphasized that passing a relief bill under special budgetary rules to avoid a filibuster “is a path to achieve that end.”

The statement sounded a discordant note with Republican senators.

“At lunch we had had an opportunity to talk to the members who were in the meeting, hoping we could find a bipartisan way forward. Our members who were in the meeting felt the president seemed to be more interested in that than his staff did,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPew poll: 50 percent approve of Democrats in Congress Pelosi on power in DC: 'You have to seize it' Progressives put Democrats on defense MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters after getting briefed.

Biden on Friday, only a few days after he promised to swap memos and data with GOP senators on putting together a bipartisan relief deal, announced he’s ready to move forward on a COVID-19 relief bill without Republican support if they aren’t willing to go bigger.

“I’m going to act fast,” he said. “I would like to be doing it with the support of Republicans. I have met with Republicans. There are some really fine people who want to get something done but they’re just not willing to go far as I think we have to go.”

GOP senators proposed a $618 billion relief package to Biden on Monday, which capped direct payments to individuals at $1,000 — as opposed to Biden’s preferred among of $1,400 — and did not include direct funding to cash-strapped state and local governments. Biden’s plan calls for $350 billion in state and local aid.

Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoOn The Money: Moderates' 0B infrastructure bill is a tough sell with Democrats | Justice Dept. sues Trump ally Roger Stone for unpaid taxes OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump official delayed releasing information on cancer-linked chemical in Illinois: watchdog | Advocacy groups say tech giants need to 'step it up' on sustainability |  GOP senator: Raising corporate taxes is a 'non-starter' Moderates' 0B infrastructure bill is a tough sell with Democrats MORE (R-W.Va.), who was in the room with Biden on Monday, said she was “a little” surprised by the White House staff statement because “I think the president is the one supposed to set the tone.”

She thought Biden was interested in a deal but lowered her expectations after White House advisers downplayed expectations following the meeting.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiModerates' 0B infrastructure bill is a tough sell with Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring Trump mocks Murkowski, Cheney election chances MORE (R-Alaska), who was also in the meeting with Biden, said it’s not unusual for principals and staff members to be at cross purposes in Washington. She noted that Psaki wasn’t in the room for the president’s meeting with GOP lawmakers.

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“I think the staff have their views and I think we saw the president express his views,” she said. “That’s not unusual around here. We see it.”

Murkowski said principal negotiators usually meet face to face so their staffs can be informed on how to move the talks forward but sometimes the message doesn’t get through to the staff level.

“That was the first meeting the president had in the Oval Office, the first meeting with a group of senators. Maybe they’re all still trying to figure out who’s doing what and who’s calling the shots there,” she added.

Beyond the White House staff, the overwhelming majority of Democrats on Capitol Hill are itching to move Biden’s full $1.9 trillion proposal as quickly as possible through Congress.

“We are not going to make the mistake of 2009 and have too-small a package that took too long and took four or five years for the economy to recover,” Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerPew poll: 50 percent approve of Democrats in Congress Former state Rep. Vernon Jones launches challenge to Kemp in Georgia Schumer lays groundwork for future filibuster reform MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters this week. 

Schumer kept the Senate working through Thursday night and until 5:30 a.m. Friday to pass a budget resolution by a party-line vote, setting the groundwork for moving a COVID-19 relief package under special budget rules to avoid a filibuster next month.

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That would allow Democrats to pass a large relief package without any Republican support although White House advisers and Democratic leaders say they will still listen to the input of GOP senators who are welcome to participate in negotiations.

Psaki at a press briefing this past week said Republicans would have a chance to “engage and see their ideas adopted.”

“At any point in the process, a bipartisan bill can pass on the floor. So just creating the option for reconciliation with a budget resolution does not foreclose other legislative options,” she said. “This is my “when a bill becomes a law” moment of the briefing today.”

Psaki said Republican ideas may be adopted during negotiations over the weeks ahead as Democratic lawmakers craft the package to pass under reconciliation.

Democrats point out that several Democratic senators voted for the Bush tax cuts that the Senate GOP majority passed in 2001 and 2003 with fewer than 60 votes under the budget reconciliation process.

Three Democrats voted to pass George W. Bush’s 2003 tax-relief package — Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.), Zell Miller (Ga.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) — under budget reconciliation while 12 Democrats voted for Bush’s 2001 tax cut, which Republicans also passed using budget reconciliation.

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Of the Democrats who backed Bush’s $1.35 trillion tax cut in 2001, only Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinOvernight Defense: Army moves to combat sexual crimes | Eight West Point cadets expelled | Democratic senators want to restrict F-35 sale to UAE A proposal to tackle congressional inside trading: Invest in the US Democratic senators seek to constrain F-35 sale to UAE MORE (Calif.) is still in the Senate.

Psaki said this week that Republicans would have the ability to offer amendments during debate on the budget resolution, which happened Thursday evening and early Friday, as well as during later phases of the process.

Senate Republicans were able to get a few amendments added to the budget resolution.

But Democrats later stripped out three of them — one preventing checks from going to undocumented immigrants, a second expressing support for fracking and a third expressing support for the Keystone XL Pipeline — in a final substitute amendment that passed along strict party lines.