President Biden leaned on Senate Democrats on Tuesday to quickly approve his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package as lawmakers rushed to get the president’s top legislative priority to his desk within the next two weeks.
Senate Democrats have concerns about some key provisions in the House-passed bill, such as unemployment benefits and direct checks, but they said they need to deliver for the American people and for Mr. Biden.
“He said we need to pass this bill and pass it soon,” Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said after the president spoke with Senate Democrats at their weekly caucus luncheon.
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said the battle against COVID-19, coupled with the legislative response through the relief package, will define Mr. Biden’s early days in office.
“This is Joe Biden’s initiation,” Mr. Durbin said. “It’s his centerpiece of his administration. It’s his demonstration to the American people that he heard them loud and clear as he was campaigning across America.”
The Senate plans to take up the House-passed bill as soon as Wednesday. The House plan includes direct payments of up to $1,400 for millions of Americans, $170 billion for K-12 schools and colleges, and $350 billion for state and local governments.
Several senators said they want changes to unemployment benefits and more targeted direct payments.
Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire are among Democrats who said they are open to extending unemployment benefits at their current $300-per-week boost rather than the House bill’s $400-per-week bump through the end of August.
The senators suggested that keeping the benefits at a higher level could discourage laid-off workers from returning to jobs, just as more states loosen coronavirus-related business restrictions.
“It’d be awful for the doors to open up and there’s no one working,” Mr. Manchin said. “You’ve got a lot of customers, no one working. That’s the problem.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said Tuesday that he thought there was growing momentum to expand on the House package and extend the $400-per-week boost into September.
“I think we’re making a lot of headway,” Mr. Wyden said. “[It] makes no sense to have another unemployment cliff in August because senators are going to be gone.”
Democrats want to pass the relief bill before mid-March, when the $300-per-week boost from an earlier package is due to expire.
Democratic lawmakers are using a fast-track budget tool known as reconciliation to speed passage and get legislation to Mr. Biden’s desk without Republican support. They are relying on Vice President Kamala Harris to break a 50-50 tie in the Senate chamber.
But the budget process prevents Democrats from tacking additional items onto the House plan without cutting funds elsewhere.
Ms. Shaheen said she would like additional money to go to broadband and health care and that there could be a way to further target the direct checks.
“I think we could look at how to cap the pandemic checks to families so that they’re going to those people who most need the help,” she said.
Under the House-passed bill, individuals making up to $75,000 per year and couples making up to $150,000 per year are eligible for the full $1,400-per-person benefit. There is an additional $1,400-per-person benefit for dependents.
The payments phase out completely for people earning more than $100,000 per year and couples earning more than $200,000 per year.
Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, said they didn’t discuss more narrowly targeting the bill with the president.
“He got on and kind of gave us a rally call,” Mr. Kaine said. “It was more just to hear from President Biden telling us how important it is that we get this done.”
Mr. Kaine predicted that the Senate will start voting Thursday in a process known as “vote-a-rama,” when any senator can offer any amendment they want to the bill.
Republicans and budget watchdogs say that while the House Democrats’ package contains many worthy items, a good chunk of the spending has little to do with COVID-19 relief specifically.
Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said the House plan cuts off unemployment benefits a month earlier than Mr. Biden wants to make room for money to shore up underfunded pension plans.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to ‘go big’ or borrow what’s needed to deal with the crisis and support a robust economic rebound,” Ms. MacGuineas said. “But going big doesn’t excuse borrowing that won’t actually help fight the virus or boost the economy.”
Mr. Manchin said Mr. Biden, who was in the Senate for more than three decades, is trying to let the process play out to the extent he can.
“Joe’s put in a hard position because he’s got people beating on him all over the board,” he said. “He’s more inclined to let the process work. Even though we’re in reconciliation, let it work. And I appreciate that.”
Democrats are likely to need every vote, including from moderates such as Mr. Manchin, to get the package across the finish line in the Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he hopes to have unified opposition within his party, as was the case with House Republicans last week.
“We will be fighting this in every way that we can,” Mr. McConnell said. “This is a wildly expensive proposal, largely unrelated to the problem.”
The Senate cannot simply pass the House bill. The Senate parliamentarian said the House plan to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour would run afoul of chamber rules.
But if Senate Democrats tinker too much, they could upset the math in the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California can afford to lose only a handful of votes on whatever legislation lawmakers send back.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat and leading liberal voice in the House, warned Senate Democrats not to change too much. She said the $400 level for unemployment benefits was itself a compromise from $600.
“The whole idea of targeting is ludicrous because we’re talking about wealth or income statistics from 2019,” Ms. Jayapal said. “And as the pandemic has gotten worse and worse, people have less and less that they can draw. … I never call it targeting; I call it restricting.”