Meet the new "gang." Almost the same as the old gang.
A group of 16 senators, evenly split between the parties, is expected to meet over the weekend with National Economic Council Director Brian Deese to discuss the finer points of President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, according to sources familiar with the talks.
Biden's plan is already running into skepticism about its size and scope, leading some leading Democrats to begin prepping the budget reconciliation process to enact big portions of the package with a simple majority in the Senate.
Skeptics include members of the new Senate group, which features familiar faces from last year's coalition led by Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine. That group, which now includes freshmen Democrats John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Mark Kelly of Arizona, helped negotiate the bulk of what became a $902 billion aid package enacted late last year.
Manchin told reporters after the inaugural ceremonies on Wednesday that wants to hear what the progress is on dispensing the previous tranche, which is expected to last through mid-March. In separate remarks this week, Collins concurred.
"President [Donald] Trump very belatedly signed the law on December 27th. And to date, we still have not seen all of that money allocated, so it seems premature to say we need … $1.9 trillion on top of that when the money hasn't gone out," Collins said.
Added Utah Republican Mitt Romney, who's also part of the group with Manchin and Collins: "We just passed a program with over $900 billion in it. I'm not looking for a new program in the immediate future."
Manchin said he's open to further aid to extend through the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30, including enhanced unemployment benefits. "I think basically trying to make sure that we're going to be able to get through, until September," Manchin said.
A major piece of Biden's proposal would distribute $1,400 payments to eligible individuals, on top of the $600 that went out under the late December package. Biden would expand the payments to cover all adult dependents, rather than just children, while keeping the existing phaseout thresholds at $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for joint filers.
Critics argue such a plan could result in wealthier households that maintained income during the coronavirus recession receiving thousands of dollars. Under the existing proposal, a family of four earning $200,000 would still get a check or direct deposit for $3,100, for example.
"There's been a concern about the cash payment and whether or not there ought to be a different criteria for passing it out and distributing it," according to Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. "That has been discussed at length and I think it's one of the major elements."
Money for vaccine distribution is one area of common ground, Collins said. Biden's plan proposes $20 billion for a national vaccination program, for instance. The top Republican on the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations subcommittee, who's not a member of the new group of 16, said that's one place his party would likely agree.
"I suspect the whole package is a nonstarter, but it’s got plenty of starters in it," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters Thursday. "There’s some things in there that aren’t going to happen, there’s some things that can happen. And that’s how this process should work."
Manchin said he anticipated the group of 16 senators could wield significant clout, given the Senate chamber is now divided 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris giving New York Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer the majority leader's job on a tie-breaker.
The bipartisan group "is going to be a force, and when I say a force, we’re going to try to find that middle. We’re working through everything, we’ve been having good conversations with the Biden transition," Manchin said, singling out White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain for praise. "We'll have some good talks this weekend about the stimulus package."
'Completely ready to go'
In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered few specifics about the timing or composition of that chamber's next legislative action on COVID-19 relief. “We’ll be working on that as we go," the California Democrat said Thursday.
House Democratic leadership is adjusting the floor schedule from what was previously announced, setting up next week as a period for committees to conduct business with the next floor votes the following week.
“As we work on these issues we won’t be back in session until the beginning of February," Pelosi said. "We’ll be doing our committee work all next week so that we’re completely ready to go to the floor when we come back.”
The House could decide to move an economic relief package through the budget reconciliation process, but that would require numerous steps and navigating a procedural maze in the Senate.
House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth said Thursday that the process could began quickly if Democratic leaders give the green light.
"We haven’t made a decision yet to use reconciliation but we are ... prepared to move very quickly if it looks like we can’t do it any other way," the Kentucky Democrat told reporters. "I mean, we could go in a matter of days, if leadership makes that decision. That call hasn’t been made yet.”
Senators would likely prefer to avoid that reconciliation process given the number of other legislative priorities, as well as the need to confirm Biden cabinet nominees. "These have been bipartisan efforts. I hope they will be again. To move to reconciliation might not be necessary," Durbin said. "I hope it isn't."
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.