White House to Pitch Wary GOP Senators on $1.9 Trillion Plan

The White House economic director may get a chilly response Sunday in making the case for the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion economic relief plan to a centrist, bipartisan group of senators.

Brian Deese is scheduled to speak by phone to 16 lawmakers, including eight Republicans, at 3 p.m. local time.

President Joe Biden’s team has said it would prefer to pass a relief package with Republican as well as Democratic votes. Democrats have the option of passing some parts using a special budget tool, known as reconciliation, that allows them to enact legislation with just a simple majority in the Senate.

Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who’s expected to be at Sunday’s meeting, termed the proposed price-tag “shocking” on the heels of the $900 billion stimulus plan passed in late December. On “Fox News Sunday,” Romney called for measures focused specifically on beating back the coronavirus as the U.S. incurs debt to pay for the package.

“It’s important that we don’t borrow trillions of dollars from the Chinese for things that may not be absolutely necessary,” Romney said in a separate interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

GOP Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota questioned elements in the plan, including a proposed increase to the federal minimum wage.

‘Emergency Operation’

“If you’re going to talk about an emergency operation, why would you then include and demand that [minimum wage hikes] be a part of it?” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “That’s just looking for a way to not get some things done.”

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain doubled down on that part of the proposal Sunday. “We certainly think the minimum wage should be part of this urgent relief package,” Klain said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The U.S. economy remains millions of jobs short of pre-pandemic levels, with the national jobless rate at 6.7% in December after the first decline in non-farm payrolls since April.

Forecasters surveyed by Bloomberg News say the economy could expand at a 4.1% pace this year, driving the unemployment rate down to 6%. More optimistic forecasts are contingent on ample supply and efficient distribution of the coronavirus vaccine.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has called for more fiscal stimulus, and is likely to repeat the need for additional support if asked at his press conference Wednesday, after the Fed’s policy-setting meeting.

Long-Term Scars

U.S. central bankers are concerned that long-term scars from the pandemic could develop in a variety of areas — from small business closures to long-term joblessness — without more government aid. Some 36% of all jobless people had been unemployed for 27 weeks or more in the final quarter of 2020, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, compared with 21% a year earlier.

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, a supporter of the drive to raise the minimum wage, said Sunday on CNN’s “Inside Politics” that “a big part of what we do needs to be targeted to those who are suffering most.”

“We need to deal with the fact that unemployment for the bottom quarter of earners in this country is up at 20%,” Warren said.

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont on Sunday backed the use of reconciliation to pass a bill without Republican support, if necessary.

“If Republicans are willing to work with us to address that crisis, welcome. Let’s do it. But what we cannot do is wait weeks and weeks and months and months to go forward. We have got to act now,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “As soon as we possibly can.”

Filibuster Future

As incoming Budget Committee chairman, Sanders would play a key role in designing a Democratic-only reconciliation package. Sanders and other Democrats aren’t able to take up their gavels, though, until lawmakers agree on a resolution to organize the Senate. That’s being up held up due to a battle over the future of the filibuster.

Elements of Biden’s plan, like $1,400 direct payments and child tax credits, can likely pass under budget reconciliation while other discretionary spending proposals such as health and education funding may be ineligible.

In addition to Romney, the Republican senators scheduled to be at the meeting include Lisa Murkowski of Alaska; Susan Collins of Maine; Jerry Moran of Kansas; Shelley Moore Capito of West Virgina; Todd Young of Indiana; Rob Portman of Ohio, and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

The Democrats include Joe Manchin of West Virginia; Mark Warner of Virginia; Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire; Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire; Mark Kelly of Arizona; John Hickenlooper of Colorado, and Dick Durbin of Illinois. Angus King, a Maine independent, is also expected to attend.

— With assistance by Tony Czuczka, and Yueqi Yang

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