WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden encouraged Democratic lawmakers to "act fast" on his $1.9 trillion COVID rescue plan but also signaled he's open to changes, including limiting the proposed $1,400 direct payments to Americans with lower income levels, which could draw Republican support.
Biden told lawmakers in private comments Wednesday that he's "not married" to an absolute number for the overall package but wants them to "go big" on pandemic relief and "restore the soul of the country."
"Look, we got a lot of people hurting in our country today," Biden said on a private call with House Democrats. "We need to act. We need to act fast."
On the direct payments, Biden said he doesn't want to budge from the $1,400 promised to Americans. But he said he is willing to "target" the aid, which would mean lowering the income threshold to qualify.
"I'm not going to start my administration by breaking a promise to the American people," he said.
Biden spoke with House Democrats and followed with a meeting of top Senate Democrats at the White House, deepening his public engagement with lawmakers on his American Rescue Plan. Together the virus and economic aid is his first legislative priority and a test of the administration's ability to work with Congress to deliver.
Biden's remarks to the Democratic House caucus were relayed by two people who requested anonymity to discuss the private conference call.
While Biden is trying to build bipartisan support from Republicans, he is also prepared to rely on the Democratic majority in Congress to push the package into law. Democrats moved ahead with preliminary steps, including a House budget vote Wednesday largely along party lines, to approve it on their own, over Republicans objections. A group of 10 Republican senators offered a $618 billion alternative with slimmer $1,000 direct payments and zero aid for states and cities, but Biden panned it as insufficient, though private talks with the Republicans continue.
At the start of his meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and 10 top Senate Democratic committee chairmen in the Oval Office, Biden sounded confident he could still win over GOP support.
"I think we'll get some Republicans," Biden said.
With a rising virus death toll and strained economy, the goal is to have COVID-19 relief approved by March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid measures expire. Money for vaccine distributions, direct payments to households, school reopenings and business aid are at stake.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president fully recognizes the final package may look different than the one he initially proposed.
She said further targeting the $1,400 payments "means not the size of the check, it means the income level of the people who receive the check." That's under discussion, she said.
As lawmakers in Congress begin drafting the details, Biden is taking care to politically back up his allies while also ensuring that the final product fulfills his promise for bold relief to a battered nation.
House Democrats were told on the call with the president that they could be flexible on some numbers and programs, but should not back down on the size or scope of the aid.
"We have to go big, not small," Biden told the Democrats. "I've got your back, and you've got mine."
As the White House reaches for a bipartisan bill, House and Senate Democrats have launched a lengthy budget process for approving Biden's bill with or without Republican support.
"We want to do it bipartisan, but we must be strong," Schumer said after the 90-minute session at the White House. Democrats are "working with our Republican friends, when we can."
The swift action follows Tuesday's outreach as Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen joined the Democratic senators for a private virtual meeting, both declaring the Republicans' $618 billion offer was too small.
Both Biden and Yellen recalled the lessons of the government response to the 2009 financial crisis, which some have since said was inadequate as conditions worsened.
Earlier in the week, Biden met with 10 Republican senators who were pitching their $618 billion alternative, and told them he won't delay aid in hopes of winning GOP support even as talks continue.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell criticized the Democrats for pressing ahead largely on their own as the GOP senators try to provide bipartisan alternatives.
"They've chosen a totally partisan path," McConnell said. "That's unfortunate."
The two sides are far apart. The cornerstone of the GOP plan is $160 billion for the health care response — vaccine distribution, a "massive expansion" of testing, protective gear and money for rural hospitals, similar to what Biden has proposed for aid specific to the pandemic.
But from there, the two plans drastically diverge. Biden proposes $170 billion for schools, compared with $20 billion in the Republican plan. Republicans also would give nothing to states, money that Democrats argue is just as important, with $350 billion in Biden's plan to keep police, fire and other workers on the job.
The GOP's $1,000 direct payments would go to fewer people — those earning up to $40,000 a year, or $80,000 for couples. Biden's bigger $1,400 payments would extend to higher income levels, up to $300,000 for some families.
The Republicans offer $40 billion for Paycheck Protection Program business aid. But gone are Democratic priorities such as a gradual lifting of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
The Delaware senators Tom Carper and Chris Coons, both Democrats from Biden's state, were at the White House earlier Wednesday and discussed with the president the need for state and local aid and the possibility of narrowing who qualifies for another round of direct payments.
Coons said he's in conversations with Republicans "about on what terms are they willing to increase the amount significantly for some state and local aid." Without that, he said, it's a "nonstarter."
Winning the support of 10 Republicans would be significant, potentially giving Biden the votes needed in the 50-50 Senate to reach the 60-vote threshold typically required to advance legislation. Vice President Kamala Harris is the tie-breaker.
But Democrats pushed ahead with votes on a budget resolution that provides groundwork for eventual approval under the reconciliation process. That would allow the bill to pass with a 51-vote Senate majority.