Senate GOP group floats $618B pandemic relief plan ahead of Biden meeting

Proposal not expected to get traction with Democrats; could test Biden's willingness to entertain bipartisanship

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, speaks with reporters in the Senate subway on Jan. 26.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, speaks with reporters in the Senate subway on Jan. 26. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 1, 2021 at 10:47am

A group of 10 Republican senators on Monday released details of their slimmed-down COVID-19 aid proposal hours before a scheduled meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House to discuss it.

The $618 billion outline is a fraction of the $1.9 trillion proposal the Biden administration released last month, and scales back many of the elements Democrats consider essential to bolstering the economy and assisting those facing financial struggles from the ongoing pandemic.

There's no direct aid to states and localities, for instance — unlike the $350 billion that Biden's plan would set aside. Aid to K-12 schools and colleges and universities would be cut from $170 billion down to $20 billion, and child care subsidies would be cut in half, to $20 billon.

Direct payments to households would be cut from $1,400 to $1,000, and individuals making more than $50,000 and married couples above $100,000 would be ineligible. The amounts would start phasing out at just $40,000 and $80,000 in annual income, respectively, down from $75,000 and $150,000 in prior aid packages and Biden's new plan. Adult dependents and children would receive just $500, down from the full $1,400 in Biden's proposal.

All together, the direct payments in the GOP plan would cost an estimated $222 billon, according to a summary obtained by CQ Roll Call, down from the $464 billion the Joint Committee on Taxation has estimated Biden's rebate checks would cost.

Enhanced unemployment benefits would continue at $300 per week under the GOP proposal, down from the $400 Biden wants, and would run only through June 30, instead of through the end of September.

The GOP offer also does not include increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour as Biden wants, nor would it require employers to offer paid leave for workers out sick or caring for children whose schools are closed.

The plan appears unlikely to attract Democratic support. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has already come out against the proposal, calling it too weak in the face of myriad economic and public health challenges facing the country. In an interview with the New York Daily News, Schumer specifically called out the lack of direct aid to state and local governments.

And Biden doesn't seem interested in downsizing his proposal, despite his willingness to talk to his former Senate colleagues. He tweeted Monday morning that his plan "will dig us out of the depths of these crises and put our nation on a path to build back better."

The Republican proposal matches Biden’s request in many respects when it comes to direct assistance in combating the pandemic. It includes $20 billion for a national vaccine program, $50 billion for a "massive expansion of testing" and $30 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund to purchase protective gear and supplies.

In addition to $35 billon for health care providers, money to buy personal protective equipment for first responders, doctors and dentists and more, the total in the GOP plan for health care matches Biden's request for $160 billion. That's not counting an additional $4 billion for mental health and substance abuse treatment funds that both parties support.

The GOP proposal also largely mirrors the Biden plan on food aid for the poor, with about $12 billion through extending higher Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds through Sept. 30 and cutting state match requirements, direct aid to U.S. territories that aren't part of the traditional food stamp program and more money for the special nutrition program for low-income women, infants and children.

And in one addition not in Biden's plan, the GOP proposal would provide another round of Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans, totaling $40 billion, plus an additional $10 billion for small-business disaster loans.

Bipartisanship on life support

The Republican senators are scheduled to meet with Biden at 5 p.m. to discuss a path forward to bipartisan negotiations.

The GOP group includes Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Mitt Romney of Utah, Rob Portman of Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Todd Young of Indiana, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

The talks are not likely to reach a final agreement, however, and Democrats are moving forward with a shell fiscal year 2021 budget resolution that will provide for fast-track consideration of a COVID-19 relief bill that can pass with simple majorities in both chambers.

The House Budget Committee is expected to release that document Monday, and both chambers could approve it as early as this week. Once the House and Senate approve the same budget resolution, that will send reconciliation instructions to the committees that Democrats want to draft the next pandemic aid bill.

If no Republicans lend their support, the final relief bill would need to have the approval of all 50 Democratic senators in order to pass. That's no easy feat considering that progressive Democrats have called for the $1.9 trillion Biden proposal to be a floor, while more moderate Democrats, such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, have been a bit more reserved in their comments.

The final relief bill isn’t expected to pass until after the Senate completes its second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. That is expected to begin next week. Democrats have a target date of no later than March 14 in mind to get a bill to Biden's desk, and they would like to act sooner considering that unemployment benefits are set to run out about a week earlier.