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Biden's bipartisan push hits wall on COVID-19 relief bill

President Biden is facing a tough choice just days into his administration on how to pursue coronavirus relief after his $1.9 trillion proposal got a frosty reception from Republicans.

The White House and congressional Democrats are eager to move quickly on another round of COVID-19 aid as the U.S. extends its undesirable streak as the world leader in coronavirus cases.

That means Biden must decide whether to go it alone by trying to pass his bill through the budget reconciliation process, likely with only Democratic support, or try to negotiate a deal with Republicans that would likely be substantially smaller than what he and most Democrats favor, a move that could spark progressive criticism but also increase the odds of being able to claim an early bipartisan victory.

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“The decision to use reconciliation will depend on how these negotiations go. … This is just the process beginning,” Biden told reporters, while suggesting he might ultimately leave the call up to Democratic leaders in Congress.

The White House signaled on Monday that it was open to pursuing reconciliation, a budget tactic that allows certain bills to bypass the 60-vote filibuster, but argued that doing so didn’t rule out bipartisan support for the ultimate bill.

“Reconciliation is a means of getting a bill passed. There are a number of means of getting bills passed. That does not mean, regardless of how the bill is passed, that Democrats and Republicans cannot both vote for it,” said White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiMcConnell, GOP slam Biden's executive order on SCOTUS Five takeaways from Biden's first budget proposal Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists MORE.

She added that Biden wants a COVID-19 relief bill and is having talks with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The hat tip toward reconciliation comes as Biden is under pressure to reduce the overall price tag for the legislation after Congress approved roughly $900 billion in coronavirus relief just last month.

Biden’s proposal includes $1,400 stimulus checks, more unemployment assistance, help for state and local governments, funding for schools and vaccines and a boost to the minimum wage.

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But it has no support from Senate Republicans amid pushback from members of GOP leadership and influential moderates, leaving it unable to get the 60 votes needed without reconciliation or eliminating the legislative filibuster.

White House aides spoke with a bipartisan group of senators and House lawmakers over the weekend on a Zoom call organized by Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinRomney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS Five takeaways from Biden's first budget proposal Parkland parent pressures Manchin on gun reform: 'You represent the nation' MORE (D-W.Va.) that lasted approximately an hour and 15 minutes, according to a source familiar with the call.

During the call, senators asked administration officials for details on how they got to the $1.9 trillion price tag and how the previous coronavirus relief money is being allocated.

“This group … really wanted the data. A lot of the questions were: Where did that number come from?” Sen. Angus KingAngus KingGroups petition EPA to remove ethane and methane from list of compounds exempt from emissions limits Lack of cyber funds in Biden infrastructure plan raises eyebrows Five things to watch on Biden infrastructure plan MORE (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, told NPR, adding that the meeting was “more exploratory than definitive.”

GOP Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start Moderate GOP senators and Biden clash at start of infrastructure debate MORE (Maine), who helped organize the call, said that while she supports more money for things like vaccine production, distribution, vaccinators and for testing, “it seems premature to be considering a package of this size and scope.”

The source familiar with the call said lawmakers widely agreed that more money for vaccines and vaccine distribution was a shared priority for any additional assistance.

The bipartisan group is expected to meet this week to discuss a path forward.

Collins noted that based on the briefing there appeared to be about $1.8 trillion in unspent funding from the previous coronavirus bills and that it “was not clear” how the Biden administration came up with its current price tag.

“I want our bipartisan, bicameral group to get together to determine if we can come up with a more targeted package that would address unmet needs that we are experiencing now as we fight this persistent pandemic,” she added.

But an effort to work out a bipartisan deal could collide with a wish by the White House and Democrats to deliver aid sooner rather than later.

Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerThe first Southern state legalizes marijuana — what it means nationally H.R. 1/S. 1: Democrats defend their majorities, not honest elections McCarthy asks FBI, CIA for briefing after two men on terror watchlist stopped at border MORE (D-N.Y.) is pointing to coronavirus relief as one of three issues that Congress needs to tackle in a matter of weeks, along with confirming Biden’s nominees and holding a historic second impeachment trial for former President TrumpDonald TrumpRomney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS McConnell, GOP slam Biden's executive order on SCOTUS US raises concerns about Iran's seriousness in nuclear talks MORE.

Psaki, during Monday’s press briefing, didn’t commit to a timeline for COVID-19 relief, but noted that the expiration of unemployment benefits in March sets up a “cliff.”

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Biden told reporters on Monday that he was willing to negotiate with lawmakers, but would ultimately let Congress decide on a path for getting the bill to his desk.

“Time is of the essence, and I must tell you I’m reluctant to cherry-pick and take out one or two items here,” Biden said.

Democrats haven’t set a deadline for when they might pull the trigger on reconciliation, but are making clear they want to get started quickly on coronavirus relief.

Incoming Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie SandersBernie SandersHillicon Valley: Amazon wins union election — says 'our employees made the choice' On The Money: Biden .5T budget proposes major hike in social programs | GOP bashes border, policing provisions Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists MORE (I-Vt.) told CNN’s Dana BashDana BashBiden's first presser wasn't about him — not really Blinken suggests US won't take punitive action on China over COVID-19 Senator scolds Georgia governor: 'He knows better' MORE that “we are going to use reconciliation.”

“That is 50 votes in the Senate, plus the vice president, to pass legislation desperately needed by working families in this country right now,” he said.

Rep. John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthMcConnell knocks Kentucky Democrat over support for nixing filibuster Democrats vow to go 'bold' — with or without GOP Democratic majority shrinks, but finds unity MORE (D-Ky.), the House Budget Committee chairman, told CNN on Monday that House Democrats could move on reconciliation as soon as next week, but warned that the provision raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour could ultimately get stripped from the bill.

“We could look at this as sort of a parallel track. We are prepared to go to the floor as early as next week with a reconciliation resolution,” Yarmuth said. “Those negotiations that are happening now can continue.”