WASHINGTON — Key moderate Republicans in the Senate dismissed quick action on President Joe Biden's top priority of a $1.9 trillion economic package, indicating that the $1,400 stimulus payments he requested could take months, or never arrive.
Democrats need to convince 10 Republicans in the Senate, which might require asking for less funding than Biden initially requested, or bypassing the 60-vote threshold utilizing a parliamentarian maneuver.
Biden's team appears ready to mount an aggressive campaign to get Congress to act, a departure from the previous administration that largely failed to engage lawmakers on legislative priorities and did not spend political capital on getting bills passed.
Republicans who would be critical to get to the finish line said they're open to additional money to speed up distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine, but balked at Biden's overall price tag. Some called on Biden to pare back the plan while others suggested waiting a few months to see if the economic need persists.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of the most moderate Republicans, said she's "sympathetic" to boosting vaccine funds but doesn't see the justification for a bill "that is so big."
"It's hard for me to see when we just passed $900 billion of assistance why we would have a package that big," Collins told reporters Thursday. "Maybe a couple of months from now, the needs will be evident and we will need to do something significant, but I'm not seeing it right now."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, called Biden's request "significant," adding that "the ink is barely dry on the $900 billion" bill.
"And so it’s going to require, I think, a fair amount of debate and consideration," she told reporters.
Sen. Mitt Romney R-Utah, a conservative who has a track record of breaking with his party, told NBC News that he isn't inclined to borrow another $1 trillion or even $500 billion for a broad economic package.
"My own view is that what's holding back the economy is Covid, not money," he said. "I want to do everything we can to get the Covid vaccines out. But once the Covid vaccine is out and people are inoculated, I believe you'll see the economy coming back."
The swift resistance means an uphill slog for Biden's plan to the 10 GOP votes needed to pass under the normal process, which Biden's team said it favors for this bill. If bipartisan support doesn't materialize, it would leave Democrats with two options: Use the reconciliation process to get around the filibuster for budgetary provisions, or pare it back to pursue bipartisan support.
"I think the administration and the caucus would prefer it be done on a bipartisan basis," House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., told reporters. "We haven’t made a decision yet to use reconciliation but we are, we are prepared to move very quickly if it looks like we can’t do it any other way."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is set to chair the Senate Budget Committee, has also said Democrats should use reconciliation if outreach to Republicans proves fruitless.
Biden's plan includes $400 billion for the vaccine and reopening schools, new $1,400 stimulus payments, $400-per-week in jobless aid, $25 billion in child care assistance and health care subsidies to bolster the Affordable Care Act and fund COBRA health insurance coverage. It follows the $900 billion plan approved in December that provides direct payments and other economic aid through March.
Some provisions could pass through the once-per-fiscal-year budget process if they're directly related to taxes and spending. But regulatory provisions, like a federal minimum wage increase to $15, would have to be excluded.
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White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday that Biden's package is subject to changes in the legislative process but that all the components are important.
"The way that the package was designed was to address the core issues of the crisis," she said in response to a question about whether it could be broken up to gain bipartisan support. "So, I think the tricky piece of that question is: Do you delay vaccine funding to distribute the vaccine? Do you delay funding for unemployment insurance? Do you delay funding to reopen schools?"
The approach that the Democratic-led government chooses to take on the new president's top priority will set the tone for legislative action over the next two years, which is likely to be Biden's best opportunity to advance aggressive bills through Congress.
Brian Deese, the director of Biden's National Economic Council, rebutted the Republican skepticism Friday, saying the United States is "at a precarious moment" with 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," he told reporters. "The risk of doing too little far outweighs the risk of doing too much."
Deese is planning to hold a call with a bipartisan group of senators, including Collins and Murkowski, this weekend to discuss Biden's proposal.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who sits on the Senate Finance Committee that would oversee economic aid, said he needs to hear a valid justification to spend that much money.
"If you don't have a justification for it, a billion dollars is too much for me," he said. "We're not here just to spend money. We're here to spend money if there is a need."
Some Republicans are urging Democratic leaders to dial back the plan.
"I think the amount would be hard, but there are components of it that I like," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of Biden's $1.9 trillion proposal. "I don’t think his bill is going to make it but we need to do something."
He said he hopes that a bipartisan working group led by Collins and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., "can come up with an alternative."