- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 31, 2021

Ten Senate Republicans on Sunday offered President Biden a COVID-19 relief deal to rival the White House’s $1.9 trillion package, testing the new president’s pledge for unity and working across the aisle.

The senators said they want to meet with Mr. Biden to discuss the roughly $600 billion plan, which they previewed in a letter to the White House on Sunday and will outline in detail on Monday.

“As you proclaimed in your Inaugural Address, overcoming the challenges facing our nation ‘requires the most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity.’ Heeding that important call, we welcome the opportunity to work with you in a bipartisan manner to combat the COVID-19 virus and provide continued support to families struggling during the pandemic,” wrote Sens. Susan M. Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and seven other centrists.

Mr. Biden invited the GOP signers to come to the White House this week after speaking with Ms. Collins.

However, the White House said the relief provisions as dictated in the Biden proposal are “badly needed.”

“As leading economists have said, the danger now is not in doing too much: it is in doing too little. Americans of both parties are looking to their leaders to meet the moment,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

The Republicans presented their offer as Democrats were moving to go it alone under a budget maneuver that gets around the Senate filibuster and some conservatives were balking at additional spending on top of the $4 trillion Congress has allocated for the COVID-19 crisis so far.

Brian Deese, the top White House economic adviser, said Mr. Biden will listen to the Republicans but “what he’s uncompromising about is the need to move with speed on a comprehensive approach here.”

“We have a virus crisis. We have an economic crisis,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We need to act comprehensively and we need to act with speed, but we’re going to continue to have conversations as we go forward.”

COVID-19 continues to kill thousands of Americans per day. New variants are threatening another surge despite declining case counts, and rolling business restrictions and fears of contagion have upended many economic sectors. The upheaval is forcing affected families to go hungry or scramble to make rent and mortgage payments.

Mr. Biden spent recent days creating a sense of urgency around his proposed package, which includes billions of dollars to expand vaccinations and reopen schools, $350 billion for state and local governments and $1,400 stimulus checks. It also would establish a $15-per-hour federal minimum wage.

With hundreds of thousands of Americans filing for unemployment benefits and millions struggling to pay bills, Mr. Biden said the “crisis is accelerating.”

“The cost of inaction is high, and it is growing every day,” Mr. Biden told reporters at the White House on Friday. “We have to act now. There is no time for any delay.”

The Republican offer would meet Mr. Biden’s demand for $160 billion to support vaccine distribution, coronavirus testing and tracing, and protective gear while extending $4 billion for mental health programs.

The Republicans said they support additional direct payments but want to deliver $1,000, not $1,400, and rein in the universe of people who receive relief checks.

“Our proposal also includes economic relief for those Americans with the greatest need, providing more targeted assistance than in the administration’s plan,” they wrote.

They said schools would get resources under the plan, though the dollar amount would be lower than the White House proposes. Small businesses should get relief under the Paycheck Protection Program that lifted companies last year. The Republican letter makes no mention of Mr. Biden’s push to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

The White House has received the Republicans’ letter and will review it, Mr. Deese told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.

Mr. Deese wouldn’t commit to coming down from the huge price tag outlined by the president. He said the plan is “calibrated to the economic crisis we face.”

Mr. Deese said the administration is open to talking about ways to make direct payments more effective but characterized the administration’s package as a series of interlocking parts that run together.

“One thing we’ve learned over the past 11 months is a piecemeal approach, where we try to tackle one element of this and wait and see on the rest, is not a recipe for success. So we need to move forward comprehensively and we need to move forward with speed, and in that context, there’s plenty of room for making modifications, including people’s ideas,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The debate is testing Mr. Biden’s claim that his Washington resume equipped him to work across party lines and make progress.

Republican senators who wrote the letter said they felt blindsided by the president’s mammoth proposal after his inaugural address.

“Nobody was consulted, including the Democrats on our bipartisan group that compiled the previous bill,” Sen. Rob Portman said on CNN. The Ohio Republican recently decided not to run for reelection in 2022.

The senators also said they would like to see the fruits of past efforts before rushing to spend more. The $900 billion in assistance approved last month is still making its way into communities. The Republicans also highlighted the space for bipartisanship by pointing to several relief efforts from last year.

“Each of these laws received the support of members from both political parties. With your support, we believe Congress can once again craft a relief package that will provide meaningful, effective assistance to the American people and set us on a path to recovery,” said the letter, also signed by Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, 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.

It’s unclear how far their plan will get. Democrats, who have narrow control of Congress, are laying the groundwork to forge ahead if Republicans refuse to get on board. They are moving to enact the plan through a process known as budget “reconciliation,” which allows the majority to circumvent the 60-vote filibuster in the Senate.

Mr. Portman said the use of reconciliation would “poison the well” in the Senate, which is divided right down the middle at 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as a tiebreaker. Republicans used reconciliation for their tax overhaul in 2017, though Mr. Portman said the coronavirus effort would be too attenuated to the budget process and isn’t necessary.

“If you can’t find bipartisanship on COVID-19,” he said, “I don’t know where you can find it.”

• Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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