GOP irked after last-ditch attempt fails to deter Biden push for quick passage of Covid relief plan
Posted February 22, 2021 6:01 a.m. EST
CNN — It was Super Bowl Sunday -- and President Joe Biden was on the phone with Sen. Susan Collins.
The Maine Republican had tried to make an urgent plea to the new president: Abandon the idea of going it alone with just Democrats on the $1.9 trillion relief bill and instead continue working on a bipartisan deal.
Biden, two sources familiar with the call said, was sounding out Collins, speaking freely to her and leaving the Republican with the distinct impression that he was receptive to deal-cutting with the GOP.
But the call quickly turned south after White House staff chimed in, with Collins and White House economic adviser Brian Deese engaging in an exchange about housing funding in the proposal -- and the Senate Republican contending there was outstanding money yet to be spent.
The end result: No deal, reaffirming Biden's view that the Republican approach was far too meager for the economic and public health crises at hand.
The previously unreported exchange illustrates the dilemma facing Biden as he tries to govern on his campaign promise of unifying the country while also navigating a sharply divided Congress that his party narrowly controls. After ultimately greenlighting a budget process that will allow Democrats to push through his massive plan without GOP support, Democrats plan to approve the sweeping bill in the House this week, a major step to achieving a central part of Biden's domestic agenda.
But Republicans, still irked by the lack of progress in the short-lived bipartisan talks, see a President who is hamstrung by both White House staff and Democrats in Congress whom they believe have far less interest in working with the GOP and seem more willing to advance their agenda without regard for the minority party. Republicans' argument: Biden seems willing to cut a deal but won't do so because of pressure from the people around him.
"He seemed more willing than his staff to negotiate," said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, who met with Biden and a group of GOP senators earlier this month.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says that's the message that Republican senators who have negotiated with Biden have left with him as well.
"Our members who were in the meeting felt that the President seemed more interested in that than his staff did -- or that it seems like the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate are," McConnell said earlier this month.
White House officials have pushed back on the notion that Biden's aides are reining him in from pursuing a more bipartisan approach to Covid relief, and the President himself told Collins and other Republicans during the Oval Office meeting their proposal was lacking.
On Friday, Biden said during a tour of a Pfizer facility in Michigan that while he's open to working with Republicans to make his bill "cheaper," he isn't willing to compromise much on its content.
"What would they have me cut? What would they have me leave out?" he asked forcefully.
A White House official said Biden has been "consistent" in his private conversations with lawmakers about the need to "go big," contending that while he's "open to common ground" with Republicans, "he believes that what the Republican group put forward earlier this month is inadequate, and he has not wavered from that view in any of the negotiations around this bill."
Democrats moving ahead
Democrats say they have learned full well from mistakes of the past, including in the first year of Barack Obama's presidency, arguing that spending months negotiating with Republicans will ultimately lead to a policy they believe is watered down. Plus cutting a deal with GOP senators would almost certainly badly divide Democrats, especially in the House, something that Democratic leaders in Congress are eager to avoid.
On Monday, Democrats plan to forge ahead on their own by taking a major step when the House Budget Committee is expected to approve the Biden rescue package, setting the stage for consideration by the House Rules Committee and later the full House by week's end.
Then, the Senate is poised to take up the bill with Democratic leaders signaling they will bypass Senate committees and take the measure directly to the floor in an effort to jam the bill through Congress by early March.
The House bill, which has been negotiated behind the scenes with key Senate Democrats for weeks, touches on virtually all aspects of the US economy, with money for vaccine distribution, nutrition assistance, childcare, state and local governments -- in addition to an extension of jobless benefits, $1,400 checks for certain individuals and an increase of the federal minimum wage of up to $15 per hour.
On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told his Democratic colleagues that they were "on track" to pass the $1.9 trillion bill by March 14 when jobless benefits are set to expire.
"If Republicans are ready to work with Democrats on constructive amendments that will improve the bill we are ready to work," Schumer said.
"However, we must not allow Republican obstructionism to deter us from our mission of delivering help to Americans who desperately need this relief."
Even though Republicans criticize Biden for going it alone, Democrats say the GOP has come nowhere near the price tag that's needed.
Ahead of their White House meeting with Biden, Collins and nine other Republicans had unveiled a $600 billion counterproposal to the President's $1.9 trillion bill, something Democrats immediately dismissed as insufficient.
The GOP plan had $160 billion for vaccinations, an extension of federal unemployment benefits, and included relief checks that Republicans argued were more narrowly tailored to people with the most needs. It also avoided controversial ideas like raising the minimum wage to $15, something strongly opposed by Republicans.
Republicans are now warning that what could be Biden's first major achievement will almost certainly come without any GOP backing.
"If it goes forward without any changes from what was originally proposed, I would predict that not a single Republican will support the $1.9 trillion plan," said Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican.