White House begins talks with lawmakers on COVID-19 relief

WASHINGTON (AP) – Top aides to President Joe Biden have begun talks with a group of moderate Senate Republicans and Democrats on a USD1.9 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 tightening restrictions in many communities.

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 on 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.

Sen Angus King, an independent from Maine, called the opening talks a “serious effort.”

“There was not a hint of cynicism or lack of commitment to at least trying to work something out,” King said. “If they were just trying to jam this through, I don’t think it would have interrupted the Packers game.”

President Joe Biden at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. PHOTO: AP

King told reporters that there was “absolute consensus” among the group that the number one priority was to speed up the distribution of vaccinations and expanding COVID-19 testing and tracing.

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.

There was also no discussion of pushing it through on a procedural move that could be done without Republicans, King said.

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 targetted package.” She said in a statement that a bill with additional funding for vaccine distribution “would be useful.”

Senators from both parties raised questions about the economic aid provisions, particularly making direct USD1,400 payments to Americans more tailored to recipients based on need.

Senators also wanted more data on how the White House reached the USD1.9 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. They were joined on the call by the two leaders of the House’s Problem Solvers Caucus, Reps Josh Gottheimer and Tom Reed who were also part of earlier discussions.

Sen Jeanne Shaheen told The Associated Press that no red lines were drawn. But she added there was consensus among the call’s participants “that the more targetted the aid is the more effective it can be.”

Overall, “it was a conversation and it was not about drawing lines in the sand,” Shaheen said. “It was about how can we work together to help the people of this country.”

White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients and White House legislative affairs director Louisa Terrell also joined the call.

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.

“We’re going to continue to push because we can’t wait,” said White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “Just because Washington has been gridlocked before doesn’t mean it needs to continue to be gridlocked