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WH, Lawmakers Begin Virus Relief Talks 01/25 06:11

   Top aides to President Joe Biden have begun talks with a group of moderate 
Senate Republicans and Democrats on a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package 
as Biden faces increasing headwinds in his effort to win bipartisan backing for 
the initial legislative effort of his presidency.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Top aides to President Joe Biden have begun talks with a 
group of moderate Senate Republicans and Democrats on a $1.9 trillion 
coronavirus relief package as Biden faces increasing headwinds in his effort to 
win bipartisan backing for the initial legislative effort of his presidency.

   Lawmakers on the right question the wisdom of racking up bigger deficits 
while those on the left are urging Biden not to spend too much time on 
bipartisanship when the pandemic is killing thousands of Americans each day and 
costing more jobs amid tightening restrictions in many communities.

   At least a dozen senators met for an hour and 15 minutes in a virtual call 
with White House National Economic Council director Brian Deese and other 
senior White House officials Sunday. Many hope to approve a relief package 
before former President Donald Trump's trial, which is set to begin in two 
weeks, overtakes Washington's attention.

   Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, called the opening talks a 
"serious effort."

   "There was not a hint of cynicism or lack of commitment to at least trying 
to work something out," King said. "If they were just trying to jam this 
through, I don't think it would have interrupted the Packers game."

   King told reporters that there was "absolute consensus" among the group that 
the No. 1 priority was to speed up the distribution of vaccinations and 
expanding COVID-19 testing and tracing.

   The White House did not seem to budge on breaking up the package or reducing 
the overall price tag, even as it pushes for bipartisan support. There was also 
no discussion of pushing it through on a procedural move that could be done 
without Republicans, King said.

   One key Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, said afterward, "It seems 
premature to be considering a package of this size and scope."

   Collins said instead she would pull the bipartisan group together "and see 
if we could come up with a more targeted package." She said in a statement that 
a bill with additional funding for vaccine distribution "would be useful."

   Senators from both parties raised questions about the economic aid 
provisions, particularly making direct $1,400 payments to Americans more 
tailored to recipients based on need.

   Senators also wanted more data on how the White House reached the $1.9 
trillion figure.

   Many of the senators are from a bipartisan group that struck the contours of 
the last COVID-19 deal approved late last year. They were joined on the call by 
the two leaders of the House's Problem Solvers Caucus, Reps. Josh Gottheimer, 
D-N.J., and Tom Reed, R-N.Y., who were also part of earlier discussions.

   Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., told The Associated Press that no red lines 
were drawn. But she added there was consensus among the call's participants 
"that the more targeted the aid is the more effective it can be."

   Overall, "it was a conversation and it was not about drawing lines in the 
sand," Shaheen said. "It was about how can we work together to help the people 
of this country."

   White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients and White House 
legislative affairs director Louisa Terrell also joined the call.

   Out of the gate, Biden has made clear that quickly passing another round of 
coronavirus relief is a top priority as he seeks to get the surging pandemic 
and the related economic crisis under control, while demonstrating he can break 
the gridlock that has ailed Congress for much of the last two presidencies.

   Biden and his aides in their public comments have stressed that his plan is 
a starting point and that finding common ground on relief should be attainable 
considering the devastating impact the pandemic is exacting on Democratic and 
Republican states alike. With more than 412,000 dead and the economy again 
losing jobs, Biden has argued there is no time to lose.

   "We're going to continue to push because we can't wait," said White House 
principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. "Just because Washington 
has been gridlocked before doesn't mean it needs to continue to be gridlocked

   Central to Biden's campaign pitch, beyond healing the wounds created by 
Trump's presidency, was that he was a proven bipartisan dealmaker, one who 
would draw upon his decades in the Senate and deep relationships with 
Republicans to bridge partisan divides.

   Some Biden advisers watched with worry as the Senate, just days into the 
president's term, was already in gridlock as to a power-sharing agreement, with 
Republican leader Mitch McConnell refusing to budge on a demand to keep the 
filibuster intact. If the Senate twists itself in knots over its very basics, 
some Democrats wondered, how could it reach a big deal?

   Additionally, some of Biden's preferred methods to lobby and schmooze have 
been curtailed by the pandemic. Though his address book remains one of the best 
in Washington, it stands to be far more difficult for Biden --- at least for 
the foreseeable future --- to engage in the face-to-face politicking that he 

   Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, ahead of the meeting, raised concerns again about 
the wisdom of the government engaging in massive deficit spending.

   "If we get beyond COVID, I believe that the economy is going to come roaring 
back," Romney told "Fox News Sunday." "And spending and borrowing trillions of 
dollars from the Chinese, among others, is not necessarily the best thing we 
can do to get our economy to be strong long-term.

   Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, 
said he didn't have high hopes for negotiations leading to Republican support 
and suggested Democrats may need to use budget reconciliation to pass it with a 
simple majority. The procedural tool would allow Democrats to push the package 
to approval without the 60-vote threshold typically needed to advance 
legislation past a filibuster. Republicans used the same tool to pass tax cuts 
during the Trump administration.

   "What we cannot do is wait weeks and weeks and months and months to go 
forward," Sanders said. "We have got to act now. That is what the American 
people want. "

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