White Home begins talks with lawmakers on COVID-19 aid

WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden’s top advisors began talks with a group of moderate Republicans and Senate Democrats on Sunday over a $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package as Biden faces increasing headwinds to bipartisan support for his initial legislative efforts to win presidency.

Legislators on the right are questioning the wisdom of building bigger deficits while the left is telling Biden not to spend too much time on bipartisanism when the pandemic is killing thousands of Americans every day and costing more jobs in many communities.

At least a dozen senators met for an hour and 15 minutes in a virtual conversation with the Director of the National Economic Council of the White House, Brian Deese, and other senior officials of the White House. Many are hoping to approve an aid package before the trial of former President Donald Trump, due to begin in two weeks, catches Washington’s attention.

Senator Angus King, a Maine independent, described the opening talks as a “serious effort.”

“There was no evidence of cynicism or a lack of commitment to at least trying to figure something out,” King said. “If they’d just tried to pin this through, it probably wouldn’t have interrupted the Packers game.”

King told reporters that there was “an absolute consensus” within the group that the # 1 priority is to expedite vaccination distribution and expand COVID-19 testing and tracking.

The White House did not appear to move to break the package or lower the overall price, even as it presses for bipartisan support. There was also no discussion of enforcing a procedural step that would be possible without Republicans, King said.

A key Republican, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, said, “It seems premature to consider a package this size and scope.”

Instead, Collins said she would bring the bipartisan group together “and see if we could develop a more targeted package.” She said in a statement that a bill with additional funds for vaccine distribution would “be useful”.

Senators from both parties asked questions about the provisions on economic aid, particularly direct payments to Americans of $ 1,400 that are more tailored to recipients as needed.

The senators also wanted more data on how the White House hit $ 1.9 trillion.

Many of the senators come from a non-partisan group that hit the contours of the latest COVID-19 deal, approved late last year. They were accompanied at the request by the two leaders of the House’s Problem Solvers Caucus, Josh Gottheimer, DN.J., and Tom Reed, RN.Y., who were also part of previous discussions.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, DN.H., told The Associated Press that no red lines were drawn. However, she added that there was a consensus among respondents to the call that “the more targeted the aid, the more effective it can be”.

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

Jeff Zients, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, and Louisa Terrell, White House Director of Legislative Affairs, also attended the call.

Out of the gate, Biden has made it clear that passing another round of coronavirus relief swiftly is a top priority as he seeks to control the growing pandemic and associated economic crisis while also demonstrating that he is breaking the deadlock may that has plagued Congress for a long time of the past two presidencies.

Biden and his staff have stressed in their public comments that his plan is a starting point and that given the devastating impact of the pandemic on Democratic and Republican states alike, it should be possible to find a common ground for relief. With more than 412,000 deaths and further job losses in the economy, Biden has argued that there is no time to lose.

“We will keep applying pressure because we cannot wait,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, Deputy Press Secretary for the White House. “Just because Washington has been stalled before doesn’t mean it has to remain stalled

At the center of Biden’s campaign was not only healing the wounds caused by Trump’s presidency, but also the fact that he was a proven bipartisan dealmaker who would draw on his decades in the Senate and close ties with Republicans to bridge partisan divisions .

Some Biden advisors watched with concern as the Senate was at a standstill just days after the president’s term in office over a power-sharing agreement. Republican leader Mitch McConnell refused to oppose demands that the filibuster be kept intact. With the Senate twisting in knots beyond its foundations, some Democrats wondered how it could accomplish a big thing.

In addition, some of Biden’s preferred methods of lobbying and schmooze have been restricted by the pandemic. While his address book remains one of the best in Washington, Biden will find it far more difficult – at least for the foreseeable future – to engage in personal politics that he prefers.

Before the meeting, Senator Mitt Romney, R-Utah, reiterated concerns about the government’s wisdom to run massive deficit spending.

“If we go beyond COVID, I believe the economy will return,” Romney told Fox News Sunday. “And spending and borrowing trillions of dollars from the Chinese, among other things, is not necessarily the best we can do to make our economy strong over the long term.

Senator Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermonter negotiating with Democrats, said he did not have high hopes for negotiations that would result in Republican support and suggested that Democrats may need to use the budget vote to get them passed by simple majority. The procedural tool would allow Democrats to get the package approved without the 60-vote threshold normally required to move legislation beyond a filibuster. Republicans used the same tool to pass tax cuts during the Trump administration.

“What we can’t do is wait weeks and weeks and months and months to continue,” Sanders said. “We have to act now. The Americans want that. “

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Associate press writer Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.

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