- Associated Press - Monday, February 1, 2021

President Biden met with Republican lawmakers on coronavirus relief at the White House Monday — a nod to the Democrat’s oft-repeated calls for bipartisanship, even as his aides said the administration has no plans to negotiate on the smaller deal sought by Republicans.

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, instead, charged full speed ahead on a more partisan track, introducing a budget resolution that would allow Mr. Biden to circumvent Republicans and pass his $1.9 trillion rescue package.

The action at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue captured the legislative options at Mr. Biden’s disposal as he weighs whether to put a priority on bringing the parties together around a smaller deal in the name of national unity or delivering a bigger package that pleases the various wings of the Democratic Party.

The meeting in the Oval Office amounted to a baby step in bridging the divide between Mr. Biden’s vision and the $618 billion counterproposal from a group of 10 Republican senators that includes Susan M. Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah.

“I wouldn’t say we came together on a package tonight,” Ms. Collins said after the two-hour meeting. “But what we did agree to do is 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.”

Ms. Collins said, “It was an excellent meeting, and we are very appreciative that at 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.”

A few blocks east, on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, revealed their 2021 budget, triggering the process known as reconciliation that opens the door for Mr. Biden’s bill to pass with a simple majority in the Senate.

Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer said they need a backup plan to be able to drive Mr. Biden’s proposal through Congress if Republicans won’t sign off.

“The cost of inaction is high and growing, and the time for decisive action is now,” they said in a joint statement.

Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, panned the move.

“Democrats are desperate to use this process to achieve any number of policies that will reward special interests while harming America’s working class, increasing the cost of living for American families, destroying jobs and weakening the economy,” he said. “It is further evidence that President Biden’s talk of unity is about keeping his party together, not bringing the country together.”

Before the White House meeting, Sen. Jerry Moran, Kansas Republican, warned that the Democratic budget process “destroys the bipartisanship that the president has promised.”

Mr. Moran said he would urge Mr. Biden to “focus on vaccines” in a smaller aid package.

“More shots in more arms is the best thing that can happen for our country’s well-being, both from a health perspective and from an economic point of view,” Mr. Moran said on Fox News. “But I also want to make sure we get kids back in a classroom, that small businesses get some assistance and Americans who need the most help get help from this package.”

Should Mr. Biden bypass Republicans, he still has his work cut out for him.

He would need every member of the Democratic caucus in the Senate to support his plan, which, in turn, would allow Vice President Kamala Harris, as president of the Senate, to cast the deciding vote.

The White House on Monday went on damage control after Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, expressed irritation over interviews that Ms. Harris conducted with West Virginia media last week about the need for a large relief package.

“We’ve been in touch with Sen. Manchin, as we have been for many weeks, and will continue to be moving forward,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

Mr. Manchin complained to WSAZ-TV in West Virginia that the White House hadn’t alerted him about the vice president’s apparent power play.

“I saw it. I couldn’t believe it. No one called me,” Mr. Manchin said. “We’re going to try to find a bipartisan pathway forward. I think we need to, but we need to work together. That’s not a way of working together, what was done.”

Ms. Psaki told reporters there is “obviously a big gap” in vision between Mr. Biden and the 10 Republicans.

“His view is that the size of the package needs to be commensurate with the crisis we are facing,” Ms. Psaki said. “That is why he proposed $1.9 trillion.

“Clearly, he thinks the package size needs to be closer to what he proposed,” she said.

Ms. Psaki said Mr. Biden believes the “risk is going too small” and the meeting with Republicans is “not a forum to make or accept an offer.”

Senate Democrats also said the Republican proposal falls short.

Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat and the incoming chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said the three-month extension of jobless benefits “is a nonstarter.”

“The package outlined by 10 Senate Republicans is far too small to provide the relief the American people need,” Mr. Wyden said. “Workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own shouldn’t be constantly worrying that they are going to lose their income. … An extension of benefits for at least six months is essential.”

Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat, said the Republican proposal for roughly $600 billion in aid isn’t enough to meet the country’s needs.

“In the end, this needs to be big enough to get the job done,” Mr. Tester told reporters. “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.”

He said of Mr. Biden’s plan, “I think there’s opportunity there to make some changes to it … but push comes to shove, and it doesn’t get changed, I’ll vote for the $1.9 [trillion].”

Mr. Biden’s plan calls for $465 billion in direct stimulus payments, $400 billion to expand coronavirus vaccinations and reopen schools and $350 billion in aid to state and local governments.

The 1,400 stimulus checks are set to be phased out at $75,000 for individuals and $206,000 for joint filers. The package also calls for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.

The Republicans’ plan is less than a third of what Mr. Biden has called for. They are pushing $220 billion in direct payments, $160 billion for coronavirus efforts and $132 billion in unemployment insurance.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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