With more than a trillion dollars in relief for the coronavirus pandemic hanging in the balance, nine Republican senators and one Democratic president entered the Oval Office on Monday evening having promised to hear each other out. But after nearly two hours of discussing the vast gap between their plans to fund the fight against the virus and the economic calamity it has wrought, all indicators were that real compromise was never in the cards.
After a meeting described as “cordial”—and which ran more than an hour over schedule—between President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and a group of ten Republican senators (Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota appeared via phone), both sides appeared invigorated by the kind of fulsome cross-partisan conversation that almost never happened under the last president. But with a ten-figure gap between their respective proposals to expand testing, provide funding for public schools to remain open, and to put money in the pockets of cash-strapped Americans, the meeting was more of a gesture than a handshake.
“I wouldn’t say that we came together on a package tonight—no one expected that,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told reporters standing in the snowbanks outside the West Wing after a meeting she described as “productive,” “frank,” and “useful.”
“But what we did agree to is to follow up and talk further at the staff level and amongst ourselves, and with the president and vice president, about how we can continue to work together on this very important issue,” said the Maine Republican, speaking on behalf of the group.
In their own statement, however, the White House emphasized the substantial differences. “While there were areas of agreement, the President also reiterated his view that Congress must respond boldly and urgently, and noted many areas which the Republican senators' proposal does not address,” said Jen Psaki, Biden’s press secretary.
Biden, she added, “will not settle for a package that fails to meet the moment.”
Ahead of the meeting, the White House maintained a message of detached openness to the idea that Republicans might be convinced to sign on to legislation in the scale Biden has envisioned—not overtly pessimistic, but not committing to slash the plan by two-thirds in exchange for ten votes that might not even be required.
“He’s open to engaging with both Democrats and Republicans in Congress about their ideas, and this is an example of doing exactly that,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday afternoon. Asked numerous times and in numerous ways whether Biden considered it more important to “go big or go bipartisan,” Psaki said that the president felt that he can do both.
But if he had to choose, Psaki seemed to indicate, budget reconciliation—the parliamentary maneuver that allows the Senate to pass some items on a simple-majority vote—is more than capable of shouldering the bulk of the $1.9 trillion bill.
“There is historic evidence that it is possible to take a number of paths—including through reconciliation, if that’s the path that is pursued,” Psaki said, noting that Biden “remains in close touch with Speaker Pelosi, with Leader Schumer, and he will continue that engagement.”
Before the sitdown, one person close to Biden said that while some Democrats might view the president’s decades-long commitment to cross-aisle consensus with apprehension ahead of such a critical moment, there was too little meat on the bones of the Republican counteroffer for him to be tempted into much more than polite listening.
“Some components of the rescue plan, particularly the parts that might not be able to be jammed through by reconciliation—minimum wage, particularly—might have been on the table if Republicans had come in with a real plan,” said one former adviser. “But the president has made it enormously clear that funding for state and local governments was critical to this plan’s success, not one red cent of which appears in the Collins plan. It’s a non-starter.”
The Republican plan is described by the GOP senators as the “Proposed Sixth COVID Relief Package”—which obscures that only two prior bills are comparable to this one in scope and price tag—slashes many of Biden’s proposals to the gristle, and removes others entirely.
The adjective “targeted” is most often used by the Republicans to describe a plan under which direct payments would be cut from $1,400 to $1,000 per person, phasing out for individuals who made more than $40,000 in taxable income in 2019 with a $50,000 cap. Democrats have not yet outlined an income bracket where they’d limit check eligibility, but it’s likely to be more in line with the $75,000 threshold in the CARES Act, and the administration is aiming to expand eligibility to adult dependents. Many Democrats, believing the last round of checks worked well, see no problem in getting more money out the door and into the economy, especially when the dollar difference between a “targeted” plan and what they may propose is not enormous.
Supplemental unemployment insurance—$300 per week, versus Biden’s $400—would be extended only through the end of June, three months shorter than the White House’s proposed extension. And the GOP proposal also includes no provisions for paid sick and family leave, funds for state and local government budget shortfalls, or an increase in the federal minimum wage, all of which are cornerstones of Biden’s plan.
In a Monday morning statement announcing their plan, the GOP senators told Biden, “we recognize your calls for unity and want to work in good faith with your Administration to meet the health, economic, and societal challenges of the COVID-19 crisis.”
After the meeting, Collins noted the group’s “appreciation” that Biden’s first Oval Office meeting with lawmakers was with them. And she indicated that she and her fellow Republicans felt that Biden did a good job of fleshing out additional details of the as-yet-unwritten “American Rescue Plan,” even if it amounted to little more than “a very good exchange of views.”
But as the United States nears 450,000 deaths from the pandemic and as nearly 20 million people remain on unemployment support, even some Republicans are urging deficit hawks to shut up.
“Trying to be per se fiscally responsible at this point in time, with what we’ve got going on in this country—if we throw away some money right now, so what?” Gov. Jim Justice, Republican of West Virginia, said on CNN on Monday morning. “People are really, really hurting. We’ve got to move! There’s too much pain. There’s too much pain.”
Many congressional Democrats, meanwhile, do not have much patience at the moment for a prolonged negotiation with a clutch of Republicans.
Having just taken control of the Senate, Democrats are eager to throw their weight around by quickly passing an ambitious COVID package. They aren’t opposed on principle to dealmaking, but many view the Republicans’ $600 billion proposal as an unserious opening bid. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the soon-to-be chair of the Senate Finance Committee, called it “far too small to provide the relief the American people need." And aides remain pessimistic that 10 GOP senators would back a higher-dollar bill, the number required to avoid budget reconciliation in the evenly-split Senate.
“I wouldn’t count it out,” said one Senate Democratic aide of a deal. “Biden and Schumer would love to get a deal and not use reconciliation… if [Biden] can say, come up to $1.2 trillion, I think if it had specific things, Dems would jump on it.”
But the presence of several fiscal conservatives in the White House group convinced some Senate Democrats that the prospect of 10 of them meeting Biden halfway—perhaps for a deal that tops $1 trillion—is a pipe dream. Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), who led Senate Republicans’ campaign arm for the 2020 election, offered a not-so-subtle hint of how he viewed the group’s role in a press release calling their offer a “proposal to rein in [Biden’s] $1.9 trillion plan.”
A remark from Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), a member of the group, prompted more eye rolls from Democrats: he said on Fox News before the meeting that he’d do everything possible to persuade Biden to lower the price tag; he also called the reconciliation process too divisive. Moran voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and pass the GOP tax bill, both times through reconciliation.
A development that strengthens Biden’s hand in talks with Republicans: moderates in his party are largely backing the plan to require a simple-majority vote should there be no bipartisan deal. Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA), a second-term moderate who has often needled the party’s left flank, said the GOP offer “wasn’t good enough” and “unity doesn’t determine the outcome here.” Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), meanwhile, said Monday that he might tweak aspects of the Biden plan but would vote for it if “push came to shove.”
As the relief debate unfolds, many Democrats are mindful of how they gained control of the Senate in the first place: through a runoff campaign in Georgia in which $2,000 stimulus checks, and not a cent less, became a central issue as negotiations over the prior relief bill dragged on. Last week, Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and Raphael Warnock (D-GA) spoke up during a caucus-wide call to urge their colleagues not to back down on delivering the $2,000 they ran and won on, according to the Washington Post.
Ossoff put a fine point on that argument on Monday: tweeting out a summary of the counter-plan, he asked, “why do GOP Senators want to slash direct economic relief? If anything, more ambitious fiscal stimulus is warranted. The people demand and deserve this help. We have the support of the public to be bold. Let’s deliver.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has also stridently advocated that Congress consider Biden’s proposal more or less as is. In a Monday speech announcing a move that puts into motion the reconciliation process, he compared the moment to the 2009 financial crisis, arguing that “Congress was too timid and constrained” in its response, and urging his colleagues to go big.
Schumer added there was “nothing” precluding Republicans from voting for the plan under reconciliation—which is true—but most Republicans simply aren’t all that interested in a sweeping COVID relief package at this juncture, and some in the party feel it would be a struggle to muster 10 votes even for the $600 billion plan, much less for anything larger.
Republicans are considering that reality—while watching Democrats lay the groundwork to pass the bill without them if need be—and are left with the distinct impression that the Monday meeting amounted to a charade.
“This is a check the box thing,” one Senate Republican aide told The Daily Beast. “We all would like to work together but the feeling is, we invested $900 billion a month ago and we’re being asked to double that right now. Nobody on this side has the appetite for that right now.”