WASHINGTON — Top aides to President Joe Biden have begun talks with a group of moderate senators on a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package as Biden faces increasing headwinds in his effort to win bipartisan backing for the initial legislative effort of his presidency.
Lawmakers on the right question the wisdom of racking up bigger deficits while those on the left are urging Biden not to spend too much time on bipartisanship when the pandemic is killing thousands of Americans each day and costing more jobs amid restrictions across the country.
At least a dozen senators met for an hour and 15 minutes in a virtual call with White House National Economic Council director Brian Deese and other senior White House officials Sunday. Many hope to approve a relief package before former President Donald Trump’s trial, which is set to begin in two weeks, overtakes Washington’s attention.
The White House did not seem to budge on breaking up the package or reducing the overall price tag, even as it pushes for bipartisan support and Republicans remain skeptical. There was also no discussion of pushing it through without Republicans, said Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
One key Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, said afterward, “It seems premature to be considering a package of this size and scope.”
Collins said instead she would pull the bipartisan group together “and see if we could come up with a more targeted package.” She said in a statement that a bill with additional funding for vaccine distribution “would be useful.” Last week, she said any new stimulus should be “focused on the public health and economic crisis at hand.”
King, who has supported much of the Biden proposal, called the opening talks a “serious effort, telling reporters there was “absolute consensus” among the group that the No. 1 priority was to speed up the distribution of vaccinations and expand COVID-19 testing and tracing.
“There was not a hint of cynicism or lack of commitment to at least trying to work something out,” King said.
Senators from both parties raised questions about economic aid provisions, particularly making direct $1,400 payments to Americans more tailored to recipients’ needs. They also wanted more data on how the White House reached the $1.9 trillion figure. Many of the senators are from a bipartisan group that struck the contours of the last COVID-19 deal approved late last year.
Out of the gate, Biden has made clear that quickly passing another round of coronavirus relief is a top priority as he seeks to get the surging pandemic and the related economic crisis under control, while demonstrating he can break the gridlock that has ailed Congress for much of the last two presidencies.
Biden and his aides in their public comments have stressed that his plan is a starting point and that finding common ground on relief should be attainable considering the devastating impact the pandemic is exacting on Democratic and Republican states alike. With more than 412,000 dead and the economy again losing jobs, Biden has argued there is no time to lose.
Central to Biden’s campaign pitch, beyond healing the wounds created by Trump’s presidency, was that he was a proven bipartisan dealmaker, one who would draw upon his decades in the Senate and deep relationships with Republicans to bridge partisan divides.
Some Biden advisers watched with worry as the Senate, just days into the president’s term, was already in gridlock as to a power-sharing agreement, with Republican leader Mitch McConnell refusing to budge on a demand to keep the filibuster intact.
Additionally, some of Biden’s preferred methods to lobby and schmooze have been curtailed by the pandemic. Though his address book remains one of the best in Washington, it stands to be far more difficult for Biden to engage in the face-to-face politicking that he prefers.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, said he didn’t have high hopes for negotiations leading to Republican support and suggested Democrats may need to use budget reconciliation to pass it with a simple majority. Republicans used the same tool to pass tax cuts during the Trump administration.
“What we cannot do is wait weeks and weeks and months and months to go forward,” Sanders said. “We have got to act now. That is what the American people want.”
Story by Aamer Madhani and Lisa Mascaro. Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire and Bangor Daily News writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.