A group of Republican senators has asked to meet US president Joe Biden to discuss an alternative $600bn Covid-19 relief package — a less ambitious economic injection which they claim could gain bipartisan support.
The proposal from the ten-strong group, which includes moderates Susan Collins and Mitt Romney, falls far short of Mr Biden’s own $1.9tn economic relief package. Democrats are considering trying to pass that plan through a congressional procedure which would allow them to bypass Republicans, who consider it too costly.
“Our proposal reflects many of your stated priorities, and with your support, we believe that this plan could be approved quickly by Congress with bipartisan support,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Mr Biden, adding they would unveil details on Monday.
The Republican group claimed parts of its proposal matched Mr Biden’s plan, including $160bn to help distribute the vaccine and boost public health capabilities to address the pandemic.
But Bill Cassidy, another of the senators behind the proposal, told Fox News Sunday that the lower price tag was “very targeted”, reducing what he called “extraneous” measures including some that would have helped public schools reopen. The offer includes a round of $1,000 payments to a smaller segment of families in need, instead of broader $1,400 paychecks under the Biden plan, he said.
The Republican proposal also included some additional unemployment benefit extensions plus support for childcare and small businesses. But it falls well short of the outlay the Democratic party says is needed to support families struggling with the economic fallout from the year-long pandemic.
Mr Biden has promised to make reaching across the aisle a theme of his presidency. But he has indicated he could pass his package even without bipartisan support in order to address his top legislative priority.
“I support passing Covid relief with support from Republicans if we can get it, but the Covid relief has to pass. There’s no ifs, and or buts,” the president said on Friday.
To do so, all 50 senators who caucus with the Democratic party would need to vote the same way, with vice-president Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaker through a special congressional mechanism called reconciliation that many Republicans complain is divisive.
Rob Portman, one of the ten Republicans who signed on to the new letter, told CNN on Sunday that any effort by Mr Biden to “jam through” his own package would risk poisoning the well of bipartisanship in Congress.
But Bernie Sanders, a leading senator from the progressive wing who votes with the Democratic party, has warned against sacrificing a deal in pursuit of bipartisanship.
“I don’t care what anybody says, we have got to deal with this pandemic,” he told ABC News on Sunday, adding the question was not bipartisanship but addressing the unprecedented crisis the county was facing. “We cannot have children in America going hungry, people being evicted, schools not open. We need to open our schools in a safe way.”
Brian Deese, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, signalled Mr Biden was still open to a compromise solution.
“[T]he president has said repeatedly he is open to ideas, wherever they may come, that we could improve upon the approach to actually tackling this crisis,” he told NBC News on Sunday. But he said he would still require “a comprehensive approach” delivered at speed.
Mr Biden has warned the US death toll from coronavirus — which stands at more than 430,000 — will surpass 500,000 in February. The number of people admitted to hospital with the virus dipped below 100,000 on Saturday for the first time in almost two months, according to data from The Covid Tracking Project.