FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden visits a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination site during a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, U.S., January 29, 2021. REUTERS
President Joe Biden will meet 10 moderate Republican senators on Monday to discuss their proposal to shrink his sweeping $1.9 trillion U.S. COVID-19 relief package, even as Democrats prepare to push legislation through Congress without Republican support.
The meeting, set for 5 p.m. EDT (2200 GMT) at the White House, will allow the Democratic president to explore a bipartisan response to the pandemic that has killed nearly 442,000 Americans and battered the U.S. economy.
Biden has voiced an interest in working with congressional Republicans. The White House promised the Republican senators "a full exchange of views."
But with Republicans proposing an alternative that would provide $600 billion in relief - less than a third of Biden's package - the White House has shown no sign of stepping back from a scale of relief that administration officials have described as necessary to meet the needs of a country in crisis.
"Mr. President, we recognize your calls for unity and want to work in good faith with your administration to meet the health, economic and societal challenges of the COVID crisis," Republican Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney and seven others said in a statement on Monday.
"We share many of your priorities," they added.
The Republican plan offers no assistance to state and local governments, one of the items that a Biden adviser described as "must haves" for Democrats in Congress. According to details released by the lawmakers, the Republican proposal also falls short on another must-have by offering only $1,000 in direct payments to Americans, compared to the $1,400 sought by Biden.
"We have not seen many red lines drawn publicly by Democrats in Congress. I think we will see those red lines if the White House considers taking some things out or delaying some items," the adviser said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Passage of the new relief legislation would not only affect Americans and businesses but offer an early test of Biden's promise to work to bridge the partisan divide in Washington.
Ten Republican votes, combined with the backing of 50 Democrats and independents, would be enough to move bipartisan legislation quickly through the 100-seat Senate. There was little cooperation between the two parties on major legislation in Congress under Republican former President Donald Trump.
Swift congressional action to address the pandemic is a top Biden goal. But Republicans have questioned his proposal's $1.9 trillion price tag, which comes on top of $4 trillion in relief approved by Congress last year.
As a result, Democrats are preparing to use a legislative tool known as reconciliation that would let Congress enact much of the Biden plan with only a simple majority in the Senate. The Senate is divided 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris delivering the tie-breaking vote to give Democrats the majority.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said his chamber would begin work on the plan as early as this week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Congress would complete a preliminary step before the end of the week.
Biden, who took office on Jan. 20, has proposed $160 billion for vaccines and testing, $170 billion for schools and universities, and funds to give certain Americans a $1,400-per-person stimulus check, among other provisions.