President Joe Biden invited a group of 10 Republican senators including Susan Collins to the White House for a meeting to discuss COVID-19 relief, but he looked reluctant to support the $600 billion measure they advanced on Sunday.
The Maine Republican and nine other senators — including Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Utah’s Mitt Romney and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis — sent a letter to the Democrat on Sunday asking for his support for their package. Any package backed by Democrats and those 10 Republican senators would be just enough to pass the Senate with a 60-vote majority to break the filibuster.
“Our proposal reflects many of your stated priorities, and with your support, we believe that this plan could be approved quickly by Congress with bipartisan support,” the senators wrote in the letter.
The package is expected to come in at less than a third of the size of the Biden administration’s sweeping $1.9 trillion relief plan that includes another round of direct payments to Americans, expanded jobless benefits, money to bolster vaccine delivery and a $15 minimum wage.
Democrats have hoped to push another round of federal stimulus through Congress before the U.S. Senate convenes for the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump on Feb. 9. They have also teased a willingness to pass a relief package along party lines, a political reality that Collins and the other Republicans tried to head off Sunday.
But members of both parties have balked at Biden plan’s price tag, and his team has shown little inclination to break up the package after a meeting with senators last weekend. On Friday, the president said he supports a bipartisan bill “with support from Republicans if we can get it.”
Biden spoke to Collins on Sunday and invited her and the other nine senators to the White House early this week “for a full exchange of views,” Jen Psaki, the president’s press secretary, said in a statement late Sunday that looked to throw cold water on the Republican proposal. She said “the danger now is not in doing too much,” but “too little.”
“Americans of both parties are looking to their leaders to meet the moment,” Psaki said.
Collins has been skeptical of the president’s stimulus plan, calling it “premature” last week to consider a package of its scope. She has specifically identified the proposed minimum wage hike as an item that ought to be debated separately from coronavirus relief, calling for any stimulus plan to be “focused on the public health and economic crisis at hand.”
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With that skepticism in Congress and the rapidly approaching impeachment trial, Biden’s plan faces an uphill battle toward passage, particularly with the slimmest of slim Democratic majorities in the U.S. Senate.
The Collins-led package includes $160 billion for vaccines, testing, contact tracing, treatment and protective equipment. It also provides for more targeted assistance for the hardest-hit Americans and extends federal jobless benefits at current levels and an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program, a forgivable loan program for small businesses.
It would not include many other elements of the Biden proposal, including the minimum wage increase and state and local aid, a priority of governors and Maine’s congressional delegation that has not been supported so far by many Republicans aside from Collins.
“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,” the senators wrote in the letter.
The Associated Press and Bangor Daily News writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.