WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from both major political parties lobbied White House officials Sunday for a more targeted relief bill as they questioned the need for some of the items included in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus plan.
The discussion came on a private Zoom call with key centrist lawmakers of both parties and Biden administration officials led by National Economic Council Director Brian Deese. It was an early test for whether Biden’s relief plan has a chance of getting the kind of support it would need to pass Congress with bipartisan backing.
Lawmakers on the call raised questions including whether a new round of $1,400 checks included in the proposal could be more narrowly targeted to those who need them the most, according to several people involved.
Participants also asked administration officials to justify the need for hundreds of billions allocated for other purposes, including $130 billion for schools, given that Congress has already spent about $4 trillion on the coronavirus relief effort — including $900 billion approved in December.
“There are still a lot of unanswered questions, most notably, how did the administration come up with $1.9 trillion dollars required, given that our figures show that there’s still about $1.8 trillion left to be spent,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a leader of the bipartisan group of senators on the call. “We hope to get more data documenting the need from them.”
There was widespread support among the lawmakers for spending on vaccine production and distribution, which several described as by far the highest priority to beat the pandemic and resurrect the faltering economy.
The Zoom call, organized by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., ran more than an hour. In addition to Deese, it featured Louisa Terrell, the director of legislative affairs, and Jeff Zients, the White House’s covid-19 response coordinator.
“I think it’s important to note that call happened, that this was a genuine, open discussion between top White House staff and a dozen or so senators to try to establish how we move forward on a covid relief package,” said Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats.
“This isn’t Monopoly money,” King said. “Every dollar that we’re talking about here is being borrowed from our grandchildren. We have a responsibility to be stewards.”
People involved said the White House team listened to lawmakers’ concerns and promised to get back to them. A White House official declined to comment on specifics of the call.
The call came with the stimulus package facing criticism from Republicans who say it’s too costly, making prospects tough for the kind of bipartisan deal Biden promised he’d deliver as president. The lawmakers involved were part of the group that broke through a partisan logjam late last year and helped ensure passage of the $900 billion relief bill in December.
The group includes 16 senators, eight from each side of the aisle. The leaders of the Problem Solvers Caucus in the House also joined Sunday’s call.
Before the call, Deese told reporters that he intended to impress upon lawmakers that “we’re at a precarious moment for the virus and the economy. Without decisive action, we risk falling into a very serious economic hole, even more serious than the crisis we find ourselves in.”
Republicans have been lukewarm to such arguments.
In an interview on Fox News Sunday ahead of the call with Deese, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, described the nearly $2 trillion cost of Biden’s plan as “pretty shocking,” while saying there were individual elements of it he could support.
In addition to a new round of $1,400 stimulus checks, the proposal includes an increase in and extension of emergency unemployment benefits set to expire in mid-March, and an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour — an item that Republicans have called problematic and that GOP senators raised to White House officials as a point of concern, according to two people familiar with the meeting. It also includes hundreds of billions of dollars to assist schools in reopening safely and to boost testing capacity and vaccine manufacturing and distribution.
If modeled after legislation passed by the House, the $1,400 stimulus checks would phase out for individuals who make $75,000 or more a year and families making $150,000 or more. But the phaseout level increases for families with larger numbers of children, creating a situation where a family with multiple children making more than $300,000 a year could still see some benefit, even if they have not suffered income loss during the pandemic. Multiple lawmakers on Sunday’s call raised this as a concern.
“At least in my state, if you’re a household of five people with an income in excess of $300,000, it’s unlikely that you’ve been financially harmed by the pandemic,” Collins said. “Whereas lower-income workers and small businesses in the hospitality industry have been devastated.”
Biden faces a difficult balancing act in pushing the proposal into law. The types of concessions that might be necessary to win support from Republicans such as Collins and Romney probably would make the proposal smaller and less palatable to liberal lawmakers. Liberals are pushing for Biden to use special Senate rules to force through the package with only Democratic votes, but doing that would undercut Biden’s pledges to seek unity and bipartisan outcomes.
The path ahead for the legislation is also complicated by unrelated disputes happening in the Senate, including the impending impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump. The Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, giving Democrats control because Vice President Kamala Harris can break ties, giving Biden little room to maneuver.