(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden is meeting with a group of Republican senators at the White House Monday in what could be a make-or-break moment for his efforts to strike a bipartisan agreement on the next round of coronavirus relief.
The meeting, with some of the more moderate Republicans in the Senate — led by Maine’s Susan Collins — came after the group presented the White House with a pandemic stimulus about a third of the size of Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal.
“I feel like I’m back in the Senate,” Biden joked to reporters, who were only allowed to observe the gathering for about 40 seconds before they were ushered out of the Oval Office at about 5:15 p.m. New York time.
The senators said they would hold a news conference outside the White House afterward.
“It’s important to him that he hears this group out on their concerns, on their ideas,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said earlier in the day.
But it’s not clear the Republican proposal — which carries a $618 billion price tag — will be enough for Democrats, who have been preparing a party-line push on Capitol Hill with a plan that largely mirrored Biden’s. They have warned that spending too little on vaccinations, testing and support for Americans impacted by the pandemic could prolong economic woes.
The Republican plan reduces the stimulus checks proposed by Biden from $1,400 to $1,000 with tighter income limits, eliminates Biden’s minimum-wage hike, and includes just $20 billion for schools — compared to $170 billion in the White House plan. The GOP proposal also offers less generous unemployment benefits and omits $350 billion in emergency funding for state and local governments sought by Democrats.
There could be room for negotiation: The Republican plan includes $160 billion on spending for vaccines, testing, and personal protective equipment sought by the White House, while some GOP senators participating in the meeting have said they could support funding for state budgets decimated by the pandemic.
Some members of Biden’s own economic team have questioned the size and scope of his stimulus check proposal, worrying that assistance to wealthier Americans could come at the expense of other priorities. And a party-line vote would require support from Democratic senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have expressed reservations about the cost.
Democrats could still look to pass discarded elements of the president’s proposal in a subsequent package, with Biden expected to outline an even larger stimulus and infrastructure proposal by the end of the month. The president, who has stressed the need for unity in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidency and last month’s riot at the U.S. Capitol, has signaled an eagerness to work across the aisle.
If Biden were able to win support for his package from the 10 Republicans he’s meeting with, he would avoid a possible filibuster by members of the GOP. Democrats would also be able to avoid employing a parliamentary technique called reconciliation that would allow them to avoid the filibuster and pass legislation along party lines, but restricts the bill to provisions related to taxation and spending. That could make it difficult for the White House to include a minimum wage increase in the final legislation.
That’s left members of the Democratic Party anxiously watching Monday’s negotiations for indications of how ambitious Biden plans to be while the party enjoys control — albeit by the slimmest of margins — of both chambers of Congress.
Many Democrats say that former President Barack Obama squandered the Democratic legislative advantage early in his presidency by engaging with Republicans who rejected stimulus and health-care legislation despite efforts to court their vote. And the party’s left flank – which supported progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the presidential primary – has long expressed concern Biden is too worried about maintaining collegial relations with his former colleagues in the Senate and charting a moderate path.
But the White House has signaled that Biden at least will enter the meeting planning to stick to his guns.
“The risk is not going too small, but not being big enough,” Psaki said, adding that “the size of the package needs to be commensurate with the crisis we’re facing.”
While Psaki said she believes the Republicans are planning “good faith” talks with the president, she also tempered expectations, saying Monday’s gathering is not “a forum for the president to make or accept an offer.”
But recent history has shown that talks between the White House and opposition lawmakers can take unexpected pathways.
During his term, Trump agreed in meetings with Democratic congressional leaders to a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal and a deal that would have exchanged border-wall funding for immigration protections for those brought to the country as children –- only for White House staff to subsequently urge the president to renege. And some Democrats still fault Biden for his work on the 2012 fiscal cliff deal with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, arguing that the then-vice president undermined their negotiating position.
Like with McConnell, Biden has decades-long relationships with some of the Republicans backing the new proposal. The senators involved in the effort include Collins, Rob Portman of Ohio, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Todd Young of Indiana, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
But Biden and his team may feel they have the upper hand this round. Aides noted that Jim Justice, West Virginia’s Republican governor, on Monday endorsed the prospect of large-scale stimulus. Democrats won two run-off senate elections in Georgia last month in part by highlighting the issue of increasing stimulus checks that Republicans opposed. And Democrats from other traditionally Republican states — including Montana’s Jon Tester — have said they support Biden’s effort, underscoring what the White House describes as popular support for the proposal.
“I don’t think $1.9 trillion, even though it is a boatload of money, is too much money,” Tester told CNN on Sunday. “Now is not the time to starve the economy.”
There also appears to be little appetite among some of Biden’s key congressional allies for scaling back his ambitions. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee — which oversees tax, health care, stimulus payments and unemployment benefits – called the GOP plan a “non-starter.”
“The package outlined by 10 Senate Republicans is far too small to provide the relief the American people need,” Wyden said in a statement Monday.