- The Washington Times - Monday, January 25, 2021

The White House insisted Monday that negotiations over President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package are proceeding as planned, even as prospects for bipartisan support dwindled and critics raised concerns about the price tag.

Senators who were on a call with the White House over the weekend doubted whether the package is sufficiently targeted to combat the coronavirus and get aid to people who need it most.

Mr. Biden said Monday there is still a ways to go in the negotiating process. 

“This is just the process beginning,” Mr. Biden told reporters at a White House event, saying it will probably be a few weeks before it becomes clear what legislation lawmakers will be able to pass.

“No one wants to give up on their position until there’s no alternative — they have to make a decision that they don’t support what is being proposed or they insist on what they have or they let it all go away, fall down,” he said. “I think we’re far from that point right now.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said negotiations are proceeding as planned and that reaching a deal isn’t as simple as cutting out pieces that lawmakers don’t like.

SEE ALSO: Biden says he doesn’t want to ‘cherry-pick’ individual items in $1.9 trillion package

“We don’t expect the final bill to look exactly the same as the first bill he proposed,” Ms. Psaki told reporters earlier Monday.

White House economic adviser Brian Deese held a call with a bipartisan group of senators over the weekend to talk about which measures can realistically be expected to get through the chamber.

“Multiple Democratic senators agree it’s not the right path forward,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Mr. Biden’s proposal to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour is generating strong pushback from Republicans, who say that would slam small businesses that are struggling to make ends meet during various coronavirus-related lockdowns.

Lawmakers also raised concerns that wealthier households would be eligible to receive at least partial direct payments of up to $1,400 per person under Mr. Biden’s plan.

Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Mr. Biden’s initial proposal “misses the mark.”

“Experts and economists from the left to the right agree: Any further action should be smart and targeted — not just an imprecise deluge of borrowed money that would direct huge sums toward those who don’t need it,” Mr. McConnell said on the Senate floor. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer vowed to get a package done — with or without Republican support — and said it needed to be big enough to confront the economic fallout from the virus.

“Back in 2008, the [economic package] was whittled down and the recovery took a decade. We cannot go through that again,” the New York Democrat said.

Mr. Biden’s proposal includes about $1 trillion in direct aid to individuals, $350 billion for states and localities, and about $400 billion for virus-related efforts such as vaccine distribution.

State and local aid was a sticking point for nearly all of 2020 when lawmakers were negotiating with the Trump administration on coronavirus relief.

Without changes to the legislative filibuster in the Senate, any package likely would require the support of at least 10 Republicans, a level of support that appears all but impossible in the proposal’s current form.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate say they’re prepared to move quickly to leverage a fast-track budget tool if it looks like they can’t convince Republicans to go along.

The tool, known as reconciliation, allows the Senate to bypass the 60-vote filibuster threshold and pass certain tax and spending legislation with a simple majority.

“I think the administration and the caucus would prefer it be done on a bipartisan basis,” said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, Kentucky Democrat. “We haven’t made a decision yet to use reconciliation, but we are prepared to move very quickly if it looks like we can’t do it any other way.”

Mr. Biden said he would leave it to congressional Democrats on when to pull the trigger, if necessary.

Republicans used the tool to pass the 2017 tax-cut law and when they unsuccessfully tried to repeal Obamacare in 2017.

Republican lawmakers say Democrats can take a step toward Mr. Biden’s calls for “unity” by dropping the impeachment trial of former President Trump. Mr. Trump stands accused of inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Arguments in the trial are set to start the week of Feb. 8, and the proceedings are likely to dominate action in the Senate for however long it takes.

Procedurally, the Senate is still in limbo. Democrats have effective control of the 50-50 chamber thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote, but leaders have not struck a deal on a new organizing resolution to set committee lineups.

The Senate did vote 84-15 on Monday to confirm Janet Yellen, Mr. Biden’s pick for treasury secretary, after Ms. Yellen sailed through the Senate Finance Committee on a unanimous vote.

Mr. McConnell has called on Mr. Schumer to agree that he won’t nuke the 60-vote filibuster threshold for most legislation as part of the new rules package. Democrats have refused to rule it out.

Mr. Biden, who represented Delaware in the Senate for more than three decades, has opposed abolishing the legislative filibuster, and the White House says his position hasn’t changed.

A coalition of conservative groups on Monday urged senators to preserve it, saying that changes could result in a “slew of destructive policy changes.”

“Sen. Schumer is willing to permanently unravel the core principles of the Senate to pass an agenda written by his party and his party alone,” said the letter, signed by conservative leaders such as former Rep. David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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