Republicans urge Biden to scale down $1.9 trillion COVID relief


Ten Republicans in the United States Senate have offered a counterproposal to President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, saying a scaled-down version of the aid package would garner bipartisan support in Congress.
In a letter to Biden on Sunday, the legislators said their version of the bill would include $160bn for COVID-19 vaccines, testing, treatment and personal protective equipment, and would call for more targeted relief than Biden’s plan to issue $1,400 stimulus checks for most Americans.
The letter’s signatories include Republican Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney – some of Biden’s most likely cross-aisle cooperators.
“In the spirit of bipartisanship and unity, we have developed a COVID-19 relief framework that builds on prior COVID assistance laws, all of which passed with bipartisan support,” the letter said, without providing a total cost for their proposal.
They asked to meet with Biden in the coming days, adding: “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.”
One of the signatories, Senator Bill Cassidy, said their package would cost about $600bn, the Associated Press reported.
Biden, who served in the Senate for 36 years and has long been considered a bipartisan dealmaker, has expressed increasing urgency in getting the coronavirus bill passed.
He campaigned on promises of a more robust response to the pandemic than former President Donald Trump and has taken several executive actions since being sworn into office on January 20 to try to get the pandemic under control.
The US has reported more than 26 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 440,000 coronavirus-related deaths to date, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
On Friday, Biden told reporters he supported “passing COVID relief with support from Republicans if we can get it”.
“But COVID relief has to pass. There’s no ifs, ands or buts,” he said.
His comments came after being asked if he supported Democrats, who have a slim majority in the Senate, passing the legislation through budget reconciliation, a complex process that can fast-track passing a bill with only a majority vote.
Typically, legislation requires 60 votes to pass. Democrats currently control 50 seats in the 100-member Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has signalled Democrats are preparing to begin the truncated process.
While Republicans have baulked at the price tag of Biden’s coronavirus aid package, the president has also reportedly been shoring up support from more centrist Democrats.
Those include Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have expressed some concerns about the package, three people familiar with the calls told The Associated Press news agency.
US legislators have already approved about $4 trillion in aid since the pandemic began, including a $900bn relief package in December.
Still, Biden has said the $1.9 trillion package will save money down the line compared with the damage insufficient aid would cause to the US economy in the future. The money will go towards an aggressive vaccination push, testing and aid to individuals, among other things.
But critics, including some of Biden’s allies, have said the bill does not adequately make clear what the increase in funding for vaccines and testing will achieve, and how much it would shorten the timeline of the outbreak in the US.
Others, including Murkowski, have said Biden should drop a provision in the legislation that would increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The increase has long been a goal of progressives, with Biden embracing it during his campaign.
Critics say minimum-wage provision should be made separate from coronavirus relief.
Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, told NBC’s Meet the Press programme on Sunday that Biden is “open to ideas, wherever they may come” on the relief package.
“What he’s uncompromising about is the need to move with speed on a comprehensive approach here,” Deese said, as reported by Reuters news agency. “A piecemeal approach … is not a recipe for success.”
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