Biden says Covid relief talks with Congress could take 'a couple of weeks'

Key Points
  • President Biden said negotiations around his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan will take a "couple of weeks," and then Democrats will decide whether to pass it on their own.
  • Sixteen bipartisan senators discussed the aid plan with Biden administration officials on Sunday, and while the lawmakers agreed on the need for vaccine distribution money, many questioned the overall price tag.
  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he is open to using the budget reconciliation process that would allow Democrats to pass legislation with a majority vote.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about administration plans to strengthen American manufacturing during an appearance in the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, January 25, 2021.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

President Joe Biden said Monday that it could take weeks for Congress to finish talks around a coronavirus relief deal and for Democrats to decide whether they should forge ahead with an aid bill without GOP support.

"I don't expect we know we'll have an agreement ... until we get right to the very end of this process, which will probably happen in a couple of weeks," he told reporters after signing an executive order that aims to promote purchases of American-made goods.

He said a decision on whether to use the budget reconciliation process to pass a relief package with only Democratic votes "will depend upon how these negotiations go." He noted that Democratic leaders in Congress would ultimately decide how to proceed with trying to pass legislation.

White House officials held a call Sunday with 16 Democratic and Republican senators to discuss Biden's $1.9 trillion aid plan, which includes calls for funds to streamline vaccinations, $1,400 direct payments, a $400 weekly unemployment supplement, and state and local government support.

Biden has made the plan his top priority since entering office Wednesday, saying the health-care system and economy need an immediate jolt as the pandemic weighs them down.

Comments following the meeting suggest Biden could win bipartisan support for Covid-19 vaccine money — but may not earn Republican votes for many of his other proposals. A 60-vote majority looked difficult for him to achieve as GOP lawmakers signaled support for a smaller package based around vaccine distribution funds.

The senators on the call agreed that producing and distributing shots is their top priority, a person familiar with the discussions said. However, a handful of Republican and Democratic senators left the meeting questioning the Biden team's proposed price tag, indicating the White House may have to scale back its ambitions in order to win bipartisan support.

The administration faces a dilemma. As the Senate group pledges to continue its talks, the White House could choose to get behind a smaller bipartisan bill if one develops. Otherwise, Democrats can put at least some of their relief priorities into legislation that could pass in a majority vote through budget reconciliation, which would require only Democratic support in a 50-50 Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has not ruled out using the process to approve pandemic aid.

"We hope our Republican friends will see the need and work with us, but if not, we will get it done. There are other means that we can use, including reconciliation, that will enable us to do this," he told reporters in New York on Sunday.

The push for fresh relief comes as more than 3,000 Americans lose their lives to the virus every day on average, and the Biden administration tries to ramp up a sluggish vaccine rollout. Biden signed multiple executive orders during his first days in office designed to curb the outbreak and mitigate an economic crisis that has left about 16 million people receiving jobless benefits as of earlier this month.

What to know about President Biden's 10 executive orders on combating the Covid-19 pandemic
President Biden's 10 executive orders on combating the Covid-19 pandemic

The U.S. has administered nearly 22 million doses so far, and more than 3 million people have received both of the required shots, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Biden wants the U.S. to administer 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office as the country seeks a level of immunity that would allow governments to lift public health restrictions.

As the Senate tries to confirm Biden's Cabinet nominees and prepares to start former President Donald Trump's impeachment trial in two weeks, the Democratic-led House is poised to take the lead on another relief bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that while the chamber is out of session this week, committees will work on a coronavirus relief bill "so that we are completely ready to go to the floor" with a plan next month.

It is unclear now how much the House legislation will resemble Biden's plan. Democratic leaders have also called vaccine distribution a priority.

Democrats can get a bill through the House without Republican votes. Still, the party cannot afford many defections from within its ranks, as it holds a narrow 221-211 majority.

Many Democrats in Congress have pushed to pass another sweeping relief bill as quickly as possible. In a statement Monday, House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said his party could use reconciliation if Republicans do not get on board with sending more aid soon.

"The Biden Administration has been working hard to gain bipartisan support for this desperately needed COVID rescue package," he said. "We welcome that support, but are also fully prepared to move forward with reconciliation to get families and communities the relief they need now."

Incoming Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has also urged Democrats to use the process to pass parts of Biden's plan, including a $15 per hour federal minimum wage.

The Senate poses a bigger challenge for Democrats than the House. Republicans have shown little interest in another large spending package after lawmakers passed a $900 billion aid plan last month.

Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, told CNN on Sunday that the senators asked Biden officials for more explanation of how they decided on spending figures, including a $130 billion sum to help schools reopen safely.

"We also were planning to get together probably at the latest on Tuesday to see whether a bipartisan package can be put together. It's not going to be easy," King said. "And remember we just passed a package ... about three weeks ago, so there's a lot of work to do on this one."

How Biden's Covid relief plan might be received by a 50-50 Senate
How Biden's Covid relief plan might be received by a 50-50 Senate

Maine's other senator, Republican Susan Collins, also joined the call. Following the meeting, she told NBC News through a spokesperson that it is "premature to be considering a package of this size and scope."

She said she supports more vaccine distribution money, but argued a bill should put more constraints on who receives the $1,400 direct payments. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has also contended that lawmakers need to better target another round of stimulus checks.

Biden suggested Monday that he is open to negotiating the eligibility for the next round of payments.

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican on the call who announced Monday he will not run for reelection, also urged Biden to scale back the plan.

"I hope the Administration will work with us on a more targeted approach that focuses on things like vaccine distribution, testing and getting kids back to school," he said in a statement.

The Biden administration has argued that the federal government risks doing too little to boost the health-care system and economy. National Economic Council director Brian Deese, who led the meeting with senators, told reporters Friday that "we're at a precarious moment" in responding to the pandemic.

"What I can tell you is, if we don't act now, we will be in a much worse place, and we will find ourselves needing to do much more to dig out of a much deeper hole," he said.

After the call with senators, senior administration officials told reporters that the meeting was "constructive across the board," according to NBC News.

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