WASHINGTON — The push to pass a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package through Congress escalated Wednesday as President Joe Biden made clear to Democrats that the need for aid is urgent and lawmakers prepared to use a special budget process to allow the Senate to advance the measure with only a simple majority vote.
The steps taken by Biden and congressional Democrats indicate that they’re not going to wait around to negotiate with Republicans who want a smaller package.
“We need to act — we need to act fast,” Biden said on a morning conference call with House Democrats, emphasizing that Americans are suffering because of the pandemic, according to a source on the call.
The president said he’s "not going to start my administration by breaking a promise to the American people" on $1,400 checks, the source said.
“This package gets money into the pockets," Biden said, according to the source. "We can't walk away from additional $1,400 in direct checks we proposed because people need, and frankly, they've been promised it. Maybe we can — I think we can better target that number. I'm OK with that."
Biden signaled that he’s open to negotiating an overall price tag, telling Democrats he's "not married to a particular absolute number," and is open to "compromises on several of the programs" in his $1.9 trillion package.
"A lot of folks are going hungry, out of work, and they're reaching a breaking point," he said. "And there's an overwhelming increase in the number of people who are committing suicide, women being abused in their homes, drug addiction and drug problems are up."
In an effort to pass the measure through the Senate, where Democrats hold a razor-thin margin, lawmakers are moving forward with the budget reconciliation process. That would not be subject to a filibuster, allowing the final bill to pass with a simple majority as long as its provisions are limited to spending and taxes.
That means that if all Democrats are on board, they could pass a final bill without any Republican support, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote.
Biden also huddled with top Senate Democrats at the White House for 90 minutes Wednesday to discuss the process being used to write the legislation. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., attended the meeting along with committee in charge of drafting the package. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a moderate who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, was not invited because his panel is not involved in the reconciliation process, his spokesman told NBC News. Manchin has sought to advance legislation more tightly focused on relief measures.
Schumer said after the meeting that Democrats want the measure to be “big, bold” and that it shouldn't be "diluted."
Beforehand, Biden also met separately at the White House with his home state’s senators, Democrats Tom Carper and Chris Coons. Carper said their goal “is to put the coronavirus in our rearview mirror,” adding, "To the extent we can work with our Republican colleagues, let's do that."
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., endorsed the reconciliation strategy, saying in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Wednesday that Democrats “can’t wait” and “there is an urgency to this.”
In a separate interview on “Morning Joe,” Manchin, who voted Tuesday to move forward with the reconciliation process, warned that he doesn’t want Democrats to go it alone and ignore Republicans. “I want it to be bipartisan,” he said, adding that his GOP colleagues will have the opportunity to amend the bill on the Senate floor.
The White House is aiming to get a Covid-19 relief bill passed by March 14, which is when extended unemployment benefits will expire for millions of Americans, a senior administration official said Tuesday. The official made clear that Democrats are willing to use the process to avoid needing 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.
Biden’s meetings with Democrats came after he met with a group of 10 Republican senators Monday at the White House to discuss their $618 billion proposal — about one-third of the size of Biden’s plan. It would provide $160 billion for vaccines, $132 billion for a smaller unemployment benefit and $1,000 direct payments to Americans.
Meanwhile, Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told the Democratic caucus a day earlier that if Congress fails to pass a relief bill, “we will see long-term scarring in our economy and our country would be mired in the Covid crisis for years.”
“We must not — must not — repeat the mistakes of the past and do too little, too reluctantly, and too late,” Schumer said.