A group of Republican senators held a "frank and very useful" meeting Monday with President Joe Biden about a new round of coronavirus economic relief as congressional Democrats took steps to push ahead on a relief bill with or without Republican support.
Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, told reporters following the Monday night meeting with Biden, "It was a very good exchange of views." However, she said the two sides did not reach an agreement on a bipartisan package.
Collins along with nine other Republican senators met with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House in a two-hour meeting that went longer than expected.
She said talks between the two sides would continue and said the senators were appreciative that Biden spent so much time with them in his first official meeting in the Oval Office.
Biden and the lawmakers are far apart on how much should be spent on a relief deal, with the Democratic president proposing a $1.9 trillion package and the Republican lawmakers calling for a $618 billion deal.
On the same day as Biden met with the Republican senators, House and Senate Democrats announced they would move ahead to approve Biden’s package with a process that does not depend on Republican support for passage.
President Joe Biden meets with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to discuss a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House, Feb. 1, 2021, in Washington.
"The cost of inaction is high and growing, and the time for decisive action is now," said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a statement.
Schumer told lawmakers on the Senate floor Monday, "The risk of doing too little is far greater than the risk of doing too much."
On Sunday, Schumer complained that the Republicans are not starting near Biden’s spending proposal.
"We cannot do the mistake of 2009 (during the Great Recession) where they whittled down the program so that the amount of relief was so small that the recession lasted four or five years," Schumer told the New York Daily News.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meets with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and others to discuss a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House, Feb. 1, 2021, in Washington.
Republican lawmakers argue that a bipartisan deal could help Biden with his efforts to unify the country and would be a better approach than trying to get his proposal approved solely with the votes of congressional Democrats.
Ahead of the White House meeting Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that while the president is willing to negotiate, "Clearly, he thinks the package size needs to be closer to what he proposed than smaller."
Biden said on Twitter Monday, "Hardworking Americans need help, and they need it now. That’s why I’m calling on Congress to immediately pass my American Rescue Plan that will deliver direct relief, extend unemployment insurance, help folks put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads, and more."
Both Biden and the Republicans are calling for $160 billion for testing, vaccines and personal protective equipment on top of hundreds of billions that were approved last year as the virus swept into the United States.
But the president and the lawmakers diverge on other aid proposals. Biden wants to increase $300 weekly unemployment insurance payments from the federal government to $400 and extend them through September, while the Republicans want to keep the payments at the current $300 and only through July.
Biden has proposed sending most Americans, all but the biggest wage earners, $1,400 checks on top of the $600 checks that were approved by former President Donald Trump in late December. The Republicans are supporting $1,000 checks for lower-income Americans.
The Republican senators, led by Collins, told Biden in a letter Sunday that they "recognize your calls for unity and want to work in good faith with your administration to meet the health, economic, and societal challenges of the COVID crisis."
Brian Deese, the director of Biden’s National Economic Council, told CNN on Sunday that the president’s proposal is "calibrated to the economic crisis that we face," but that Biden would look at the Republican proposal.
Deese said Biden is "uncompromising when it comes to the speed we need to act at to address this crisis," including a reeling economy, a sluggish rollout of coronavirus vaccinations across the country and a steadily increasing U.S. coronavirus death toll. It now stands at more than 441,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Biden has said Democrats will push through their version of the relief package on a party line vote in Congress if they need to rather than engage in protracted negotiations.
Deese declined to say what overall amount Biden would be willing to agree to.
But he said the president was willing to target the cash stipends so that money does not go to bigger wage earners.
"We want to get cash into the pockets of people who need it the most," Deese said.
"The immediate focus," he said, "is putting a floor under the economic crisis."
Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, one of the 10 Republicans calling for a compromise with Biden, said, "Let’s focus on those who are struggling."
He said it was "not in the interest of the Democratic Party to ram through" its version of the relief bill. "If you can’t find bipartisanship on COVID-19, I don’t know where you can," Portman said. COVID-19 is the illness caused by the coronavirus.