Republicans senators made a lowball offer on Sunday to cooperate with the Biden administration on a new coronavirus relief package, increasing the likelihood that the White House will seek to bypass Republicans to fund its proposal.
A group of 10 Republican senators led by Susan Collins of Maine pitched Joe Biden a sketch of a relief plan with a reported $600bn total price tag – less than a third of the $1.9tn stimulus package the Biden team has laid out over the last days.
The yawning gap between the two numbers caused some observers to question whether Republicans were really trying to reach a deal – or instead were laying the groundwork for future accusations that Biden had not seriously pursued his promises to try to work with Republicans.
Asked about the new Republican offer on the NBC News program Meet the Press, national economic council director Brian Deese said Biden is “open to ideas” but would not be stalled.
“What he’s uncompromising about is the need to move with speed on a comprehensive approach here,” Deese said.
“We have a virus crisis; we have an economic crisis. We have to get shots in people’s arms. We have to get the schools reopened so that parents can go back to work. And we need to provide direct relief to families and businesses across the country who are really struggling here.”
One signatory of the Republican offer, senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who has announced his upcoming retirement, told CNN that the $1.9tn price tag was too high “at a time of unprecedented deficits and debts”.
But moderate Democratic senator Jon Tester of Montana said the twin crises of the pandemic and record unemployment demanded decisive action. “I don’t think $1.9tn, even though it is a boatload of money, is too much money,” Tester told CNN. “I think now is not the time to starve the economy.”
The US has just surpassed 26m confirmed Covid cases and 440,000 deaths. Unemployment insurance claims topped 1m last week and 30 million Americans reported suffering from food scarcity.
Hoping for a break with the lockstep partisanship of the Donald Trump years, Biden has made working with Republicans a stated priority of his early presidency.
But his advisers have also signaled that speed is important and that they will use a parliamentary measure known as budget reconciliation to fund their Covid relief bill if no Republicans come onboard.
With a 50-member majority in the US Senate clinched by the vote of vice-president Kamala Harris, Democrats could advance the relief package alone – if they are able to craft a deal that does not lose centrists such as West Virginia senator Joe Manchin.
“This is a unique crisis,” Deese told CNN. “It’s a unique health crisis, a unique economic crisis, and it’s one that calls on all of us to work together with the speed that we need to put a comprehensive response in place.”
The Biden plan calls for $1,400 payments to individuals, enhanced unemployment benefits, a $15 minimum wage, support for schools to help them reopen safely, and money for vaccine distribution and administration.
Republicans pointed out that Congress has already appropriated $4tn for coronavirus relief in the last year and that some of the $900bn allocated last month has not been spent.
Portman said the proposal for $1,400 payouts to individuals in the Biden plan should be restricted based on income. Manchin has echoed that proposal, saying that families earning from $250,000-$300,000 should not necessarily qualify.
The importance of keeping Manchin onboard was underscored when the senator reacted negatively to a surprise appearance by Harris on a local West Virginia television station calling for support for more Covid relief legislation. The move was received as an awkward effort to pressure Manchin.
“I saw it, I couldn’t believe it,” Manchin said in a local news video. “No one called me. We’re going to try to find a bipartisan pathway forward, but we need to work together. That’s not a way of working together.”
In a letter to Biden outlining their offer, the more moderate Republicans quoted his call in his inaugural address for bipartisan unity and said “we welcome the opportunity to work with you.”
“We believe that this plan could be approved quickly by Congress with bipartisan support,” the letter said.
The Republican proposal mirrored some provisions of the Biden plan, such as $160bn in new spending on vaccines, testing, treatment, and personal protective equipment. The Republicans said they would provide more details on Monday.
But Democrats did not appear willing to wait for long to hear the Republican pitch. Senator Bernie Sanders, the incoming chairman of the budget committee, told ABC News’ This Week program: “We have got to act and we have got to act now”.