White House Pushed by Bipartisan Lawmakers on Relief Plan’s Size

White House Pushed by Bipartisan Lawmakers on Relief Plan’s Size

White House economic adviser Brian Deese was asked Sunday by Republican and Democratic lawmakers for justification for the $1.9 trillion price tag of the administration’s Covid-19 relief plan.

“Part of what we’re asking for is more data — where did you get the number?” said Senator Angus King, a Democratically-aligned Maine independent who participated in Deese’s call. King was referring to the potential cost of the package’s components, versus the total price-tag.

The discussion, scheduled to feature 16 Senate Democrats and Republicans, also included the leaders of a bipartisan group of House centrists. Participants characterized it as an initial outreach by the White House as President Joe Biden seeks what would be the second-largest emergency spending bill ever.

The call is the latest sign Biden faces challenges in enacting Covid economic stimulus, his top legislative priority.

There was bipartisan support for funding for distributing Covid-19 vaccines and for coronavirus testing and tracing, according to three aides familiar with the discussions. Republicans including GOP Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who had expressed skepticism last week about the need for another big relief package, said they at the same time were open to looking at money for the vaccines.

One idea floated was to split off a package for vaccines and testing, though the White House officials on the call didn’t offer support for that, according to one aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Participants said Deese mainly listened to the lawmakers on the call, thanking them for their input.

Feb. 8 Target

“We would like to be able to move a package” before the Senate takes up the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, King said. That would mean a bill by Feb. 8. King noted that the mid-March expiration of some aid included in the $900 billion relief bill passed last month serves as another potential deadline.

Another element of bipartisan discussion was how to better target a future round of direct payments to people who most need it.

King said that while it’s notable that the administration is seeking bipartisan support for its plan, the option of going ahead just with a Democratic bill “I’m sure will be under intense discussion at the White House.”

Part of the roughly 75-minute discussion revolved around tallying up exactly how much of last month’s $900 billion bill has been spent so far, participants said.

Democrats have the option of passing some parts of a new bill using a special budget tool, known as reconciliation, that allows them to enact legislation with just a simple majority in the Senate.

‘Shocking’ Size

Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, one of those scheduled to be on the call, earlier termed the proposed price-tag “shocking” on the heels of the December bill. On “Fox News Sunday,” Romney called for measures focused specifically on beating back the coronavirus as the U.S. incurs debt to pay for the package.

“It’s important that we don’t borrow trillions of dollars from the Chinese for things that may not be absolutely necessary,” Romney said in a separate interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

GOP Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota questioned elements in the plan, including a proposed increase to the federal minimum wage.

“If you’re going to talk about an emergency operation, why would you then include and demand that [minimum wage hikes] be a part of it?” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “That’s just looking for a way to not get some things done.”

Minimum Wage

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain doubled down on that part of the proposal Sunday. “We certainly think the minimum wage should be part of this urgent relief package,” Klain said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The U.S. economy remains millions of jobs short of pre-pandemic levels, with the national jobless rate at 6.7% in December after the first decline in non-farm payrolls since April.

Forecasters surveyed by Bloomberg News say the economy could expand at a 4.1% pace this year, driving the unemployment rate down to 6%. More optimistic forecasts are contingent on ample supply and efficient distribution of the coronavirus vaccine.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has called for more fiscal stimulus, and is likely to repeat the need for additional support if asked at his press conference Wednesday, after the Fed’s policy-setting meeting.

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont on Sunday backed the use of reconciliation to pass a bill without Republican support, if necessary.

“If Republicans are willing to work with us to address that crisis, welcome. Let’s do it. But what we cannot do is wait weeks and weeks and months and months to go forward. We have got to act now,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “As soon as we possibly can.”

As incoming Budget Committee chairman, Sanders would play a key role in designing a Democratic-only reconciliation package. Sanders and other Democrats aren’t able to take up their gavels, though, until lawmakers agree on a resolution to organize the Senate. That’s being up held up due to a battle over the future of the filibuster.

Elements of Biden’s plan, like $1,400 direct payments and child tax credits, can likely pass under budget reconciliation while other discretionary spending proposals such as health and education funding may be ineligible.

In addition to Romney, the Republican senators scheduled to be at the meeting included Lisa Murkowski of Alaska; Susan Collins of Maine; Jerry Moran of Kansas; Shelley Moore Capito of West Virgina; Todd Young of Indiana; Rob Portman of Ohio, and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

The Democrats expected to be on the call included Joe Manchin of West Virginia; Mark Warner of Virginia; Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire; Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire; Mark Kelly of Arizona; John Hickenlooper of Colorado, and Dick Durbin of Illinois, as well as King of Maine.

House Problem Solvers Caucus chairs Tom Reed, Republican of New York, and Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey, also participated.

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