Biden still seeking bipartisan Covid-19 relief package despite stalemate
(CNN) -- President Joe Biden is continuing to chase a bipartisan deal over his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief proposal, but White House officials privately acknowledge the bill will need to be pared down to secure Republican support after GOP lawmakers balked at the price tag.
It's not clear how much the White House will be willing to lower the price tag and whether that will be enough to secure Republican support. And even as they acknowledge that reality, Biden administration officials and congressional Democrats are increasingly skeptical a bipartisan deal can be reached. Several key Republican senators are also raising questions about whether the White House is serious about a bipartisan deal.
The President needs 10 Republican senators to join all 50 Democrats in order to pass the relief legislation through the normal legislative process and overcome an all-but-certain GOP objection.
Biden has repeatedly said a bipartisan deal is his preference, but his aides have also stressed the urgent need for economic relief and the new Democratic majority in the Senate is considering a rare procedural tactic known as reconciliation to jam major parts of the legislation through along party lines. Sources said the reality of the White House's economic team and congressional Democrats pressing for speed and scale has started to settle in on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.
"We are at a moment where we need decisive action," National Economic Council director Brian Deese said on CNBC this week. "We need to move quickly, and we need to move comprehensively."
While Biden is willing to consider less than $1.9 trillion in relief, White House officials made clear they are not interested in splitting up the legislation -- getting a bipartisan vote on some aspect and then passing a separate package along party lines using reconciliation.
"The needs of the American people are urgent from putting food on the table, to getting vaccines out the door to reopening schools. Those aren't partisan issues. We are engaging with a range of voices -- that's democracy in action -- we aren't looking to split a package in two," White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted.
Biden was asked Thursday at the White House if he believes getting Covid-19 relief passed would require breaking up the legislation.
"No one requires me to do anything," Biden told reporters with a smile.
Psaki said later on Thursday that the President "wants this to be a bipartisan package regardless of the mechanisms."
"Republicans can still vote for a package even if it goes through with reconciliation -- there's no blood oath anybody signs, they're able to support it regardless," she said at a White House briefing.
Psaki continued: "He wants this to be a bipartisan package. He's listening to Democrats and Republicans -- we all are -- to ensure that's what it looks like at the end of the day."
A senior administration official told CNN the White House still considers every component of the bill "essential."
"What we're still reiterating with members and with groups is that these different components -- the economic assistance, money for vaccinations ... are all essential," a senior administration official said.
Republicans have been largely critical of Biden's legislative push, and many have signaled they can't support a Covid-19 relief package that costs nearly $2 trillion just a month after they passed a $900 billion bill.
In a private Senate GOP conference call Wednesday several key Republican senators -- including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Rob Portman of Ohio -- expressed concern with the direction of the White House on the relief plan and raised questions about whether Biden's team was really serious about a bipartisan deal, according to two people familiar with the call.
Biden's Capitol Hill outreach this week has included calls both Collins and Portman.
The President and Collins had what was described as a "general" conversation and Covid relief was among the issues discussed, a source familiar with the call said. Another source familiar with Biden's call with Portman would not discuss issues brought up during their conversation.
The calls highlight the direct involvement Biden is taking in engaging senators as he seeks to build bipartisan support for the relief package, which he's deemed a top legislative priority.
Biden has spoken with some of the Republican members of the group of centrist senators dubbed the "Sweet 16" group. But he has not yet spoken with all eight. Aides for Republican Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas said Biden had not spoken with them about the relief package this week.
Earlier this week, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, another key member of the "Sweet 16" group, indicated in a statement that he had spoken with the President about how vaccine distribution is a key priority for the administration.
White House chief of staff Ron Klain said in an interview with CBS Thursday night that he felt the bill is "gaining a lot of momentum on Capitol Hill."
"We've been here seven days, and I think we've gotten more to advance a bill in seven days than any administration in history," he claimed. "I think we'll let the legislative process prove that."
A senior administration official said the White House is most willing to reconfigure the stimulus checks to make them more targeted and lowering the income cap, something Collins and other Republicans involved in the discussions have raised. In private discussions, Biden has "expressed an openness to narrowing the targeting" of the stimulus check program.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are "engaged directly with members and have had a number of productive conversations through the course of the week," which will "pick up in the days ahead," Psaki said at Wednesday's press briefing.
Biden, Psaki noted, will be meeting with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and other members of his economic team on Friday to discuss the relief package, among other topics.
Deese and Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus coordinator, are joining the Senate Democratic caucus call on Thursday to brief senators on the Covid-19 relief package, according to a source familiar. Deese is leading White House outreach on the $1.9 trillion package as the administration continues to weigh whether bipartisan talks will yield anything substantive.
In addition to that call, Deese and Zients have "several other" scheduled briefings with members of Congress, Psaki said on Wednesday. White House chief of staff Ron Klain and senior adviser Anita Dunn are also speaking with members of Congress, Psaki said, and will continue to do so.
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