Hours after President Joe Biden was sworn into office, White House press secretary Jen Psaki had a challenge for congressional Republicans—and Democrats—suffering from sticker shock at the $1.9 trillion price tag of his proposed coronavirus relief plan: name which part you want on the chopping block.
“The package wasn’t designed with the number $1.9 trillion as a starting point—it was designed with the components that were necessary to give people the relief they needed,” Psaki told reporters during her inaugural press briefing last week. “What are you going to cut? Are you going to cut funding for vaccinations? Are you going to cut funding for unemployment insurance? Are you going to cut funding for reopening schools?”
One week later, members of Congress from both parties are already sharpening their carving knives—and progressive hopes for a more padded relief bill are dwindling.
Much of the GOP, for starters, would gladly take up Psaki on that offer; many senators have said full-stop that they don’t support sending out more funds after approving a $900 billion package last month. The clutch of Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the middle who will decide the bill’s fate—and the future of most contentious legislation in an evenly divided Senate—meanwhile, have made clear they won’t take Biden’s offer no questions asked.
“I want to understand how it was put together, what the background of the numbers is, and what chances there are for some bipartisan work to make something like it happen,” said Sen. Angus King (I-ME). He is part of a 16-member Senate group, made up of eight lawmakers from each party, that is in talks with the White House about the proposal. On a Sunday call with top economic adviser Brian Deese, the group pressed the White House to show its work on the nearly $2 trillion plan.
Asked by The Daily Beast on Tuesday what he could be comfortable cutting, King declined to take Psaki’s bait. “No,” he said. “I'm not going to negotiate now.”
Members of the Senate Republican moderate wing are politely sounding out the White House, but don’t sound especially eager to hop on board. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME)—just one of 10 GOP votes needed to pass a COVID plan without resorting to the budget reconciliation maneuver—said it seemed “premature” to be considering a plan on the scale Biden had requested.
But while moderates contemplate cuts, Biden has another force to contend with: an energized progressive wing pushing to pass what he proposed at the very least, if not build on it. “I think Joe Biden is advocating for something that’s big and bold, if anything I should say we should be thinking even bigger and bolder,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), one of the Senate’s most left-leaning members, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “But I think cutting it back is a mistake.”
Such is the situation for Biden’s top legislative priority out of the gate, a so-called “American rescue plan” that includes everything from a round of $1,400 direct payments for Americans to hundreds of billions in funding for schools, vaccinations, and expanding health services in underserved communities.
But in order to pass a COVID relief plan with even 50 votes in the Senate, the White House may have to grapple with the flip side to Psaki’s question: not what, exactly, skeptics would propose cutting, but how they would cut it. That may apply most to one of the early sticking points in COVID discussions, the direct stimulus payments.
The first round of direct checks, approved last year, saw those making under $75,000 per year receive the full $1,200 payment, and with those making more receiving a smaller amount of cash. To critics, that structure was inefficient in getting dollars to those who need the help most, and it certainly does not comport with the “targeted” nature of COVID relief that they would like to see now.
An income threshold for checks for this round is up for debate, but the amount—$1,400 to supplement a $600 payment that went out in December—appears locked in. The White House has said it wants to expand check eligibility to adult dependents and immigration mixed-status households.
“A lot of the questions are, who does this get tailored to?” said Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), a member of the Senate group talking to the Biden team. “I think I’d want to see the answers to that.”
Biden has acknowledged these concerns, calling them “legitimate” questions to ask. But there is a sense in some corners of Capitol Hill that these lawmakers aren’t looking to secure a drastic reduction of the legislation’s price tag, but are instead searching for a shield from expected criticism that they would be throwing good money after bad out the window.
“Senators are less concerned about lowering the total cost of the $1.9 trillion bill and more about the optics of sending checks to people in their states who have done quite well this year,” said a Democratic Senate aide, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss dynamics of the talks. “They also need answers from the Biden Administration about how bare the Trump team left agencies and departments that are front and center on Covid response.”
Beyond that, some aspects of the plan, skeptics say, are a bit far afield from the president’s stated goal of changing the course of the pandemic that has already claimed more than 420,000 lives in the United States, including raising the federal minimum wage to $15 and $9 billion for cybersecurity infrastructure investments.
Republicans, many of whom struggled to support the second round of pandemic stimulus during the Trump administration, have increasingly pointed to concerns about the ballooning national debt in the wake of Washington’s pandemic response, which has already drained more than $4 trillion from the nation’s coffers—and that’s not counting the massive tax shortfall faced by the Internal Revenue Service. The resurgence of deficit hawkishness after four years of the GOP’s acquiescence to a free-spending Trump—who ushered in the budget-busting tax cut bill beloved by the party—coincides, of course, with a Democratic return to power.
Granted, budget hawks tend to fly south during Republican administrations, but even some key Democrats are wary of adding their names to a bill that, as of Wednesday, isn’t even written yet. Sources on both sides of the Capitol expect that legislative text could be rolled out early next week.
For his part, Biden—a creature of the Senate for more than 30 years—has expressed a willingness to give bipartisan talks a chance to iron out some of the disagreements. But the president has already indicated that he could support pushing as much of the proposal through the reconciliation process—which would fast-track the bill toward a simple majority vote because it’s connected to federal spending and revenue- as he can.
“Time is of the essence,” Biden told reporters on Monday. “I’m reluctant to cherry-pick and take out one or two items here and then have to go through it again, because they all go sort of hand in glove.”
With extended pandemic unemployment benefits set to expire in mid-March, and with at least one week of Senate floor time in February set to be consumed by Trump’s impeachment trial, lawmakers are well aware of how little time they have to work with if they are to avoid major disruptions to essential benefits.
To many on the party’s left wing, drawing up what Biden had proposed and passing it as soon as possible is the best way to ensure that Washington does not leave struggling people in the lurch. To some, like Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), that means it is imperative that the White House not entertain a lengthy negotiation with centrists while the clock ticks.
“If it’s a week or so, and it’s trying to get people on board with basically the Biden plan, fine,” Khanna told The Daily Beast. “But Susan Collins doesn't get to decide what national policy is, Joe Biden does.” A supporter of codifying recurring $2,000 pandemic stimulus checks into law, Khanna said he was losing patience with the concerns about “targeted” relief.
“This is not about substance, it’s about politics, and that’s what’s frustrating,” said Khanna.
The White House has repeatedly emphasized that because of his deep understanding of the Senate, Biden has no expectation that whatever relief plan ends up on his desk will be a carbon copy of the proposal he outlined.
“He proposed his package. He’s getting feedback. We’re having conversations. We don’t expect the final bill to look exactly the same as the first bill he proposed,” Psaki told reporters on Monday. “Each component of this package is vital to get us through this period of time, so that’s how the president looks at the package: that each of them are essential.”
Some lawmakers have tried to address competing concerns by floating a compromise: that some elements—like vaccine funding and direct economic relief—be tied together and approved immediately, leaving other, thornier elements of Biden’s plan for later. Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) mentioned that possibility, which has been floating around House Democratic circles, to The Daily Beast on Monday.
But Beyer was sympathetic to Biden’s argument about the necessity of passing a holistic legislative package. “I don’t think he went high with the idea of having it negotiated down,” he said. “I think he honestly, authentically, said, this is what we need.”
As they try to carefully navigate the waters on coronavirus relief, leaders of the Senate moderate group are rejecting the premise that they’re searching for line items to slash and things to trim.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who organized a Sunday call with the White House and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, insisted there are no objections on principle to the president’s $1.9 trillion ask. “This is based on a COVID need,” said Manchin on Tuesday. “We’re open to everything. I’m open to anything and everything that President Biden thinks he may need.”