WASHINGTON – Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants a lower overall price tag.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, doesn't want a minimum wage increase included.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer still wants a "bold and robust" bill.
Competing interests, a thin House majority, and a Senate composition that gives an enormous amount of power to individual members mean President Joe Biden faces an uphill climb to pass his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.
More aid for Americans could be on the chopping block, including a one-year expansion of the child tax credit, $1,400 stimulus checks and a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. The pending impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump and Republican resistance to the overall price tag also loom large.
The argument is centered on a key question: Are all of the bill's provisions related to the pandemic?
Trump's second impeachment trial: As the numbers suggest a Trump acquittal, Senators explore censure and brace for impeachment trial
Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., the co-chair of the moderate House Problem Solvers Caucus, told reporters Wednesday that the inclusion of the minimum wage increase could make the package seem like it was "contaminated" by partisans who wanted to use it as a vehicle to "legislate on things that are not related directly to the crisis."
And Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, a key moderate, said the minimum wage increase was important to Democrats but "really has nothing to do with COVID relief," pointing instead to provisions like the last package's $300 boost to unemployment benefits as a higher-priority agenda item.
Biden says he's open to some negotiation, but not all
Biden's proposal includes a broad variety of policy priorities, including $20 billion for national vaccination program, expanding unemployment insurance supplemental payments to $400 per week, expanding to 14 weeks paid sick and family and medical leave, and allocating $25 billion in rental assistance and an additional $5 billion to cover home energy and water costs.
Biden and several administration officials have said they are open to negotiating the $1,400 stimulus check or the threshold around who will receive it.
“Well, there’s a legitimate reason for people to say, ‘Do you have the lines drawn the exact right way? Should it go to anybody making over X-number of dollars or why?’” Biden told reporters Monday. “I’m open to negotiate those things. That’s all.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday on the Senate floor that the first draft of Biden’s proposal “misses the mark.” He said he would support a “smart and targeted” package rather than what he called an “imprecise deluge of borrowed money.”
And key Senate Republicans like Collins have concurred. She told reporters Monday she wanted a package that would “focus solely” on the pandemic rather than include a “wish list” of Democratic priorities like an increase to the minimum wage, though she said she would support debate over the minimum wage in a separate bill.
Despite the Biden administration’s openness to negotiate, Biden indicated it may be difficult to take out certain policies from the package as they are “hand in glove” issues.
"I’m reluctant to cherry-pick and take out one or two items here, and then have to go through it again to – because these all are kind of – they go, sort of, hand in glove, each of these issues,” he said.
Democrats may decide to go it alone via reconciliation
Schumer signaled Wednesday that he might move forward without Republican support anyway.
"We must not repeat the mistakes of 2008 and 2009, when Congress was too timid to confront the national crisis," he said, referring to the federal government's relief packages passed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that progressives derided as too small to fully restore the American economy.
The Senate is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, with Vice President Kamala Harris available to break ties. That means that for most legislation, Democrats need to secure at least 10 Republican votes to pass a key procedural hurdle and break a potential filibuster. In the House, Democrats hold only a three-seat margin, leaving little room for error.
If they are unable to secure enough Republican support to break a filibuster, Democrats can skip that process if they use a procedure known as “budget reconciliation,” where they can pass legislation with a simple majority but are subject to certain rules that could make it more difficult to include some Democratic priorities like the $15 minimum wage increase.
When asked about passing the bill through reconciliation, Biden said that decision "will be one made by the leaders of the House and the Senate.”
Both sides have used reconciliation to attempt to pass major legislation in the past. Republicans tried to use the process to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017, but failed when three Republican senators voted with all Democrats to reject the repeal. Republicans later succeeded, however, in passing a major tax code reform through reconciliation.
Nonetheless, Republicans are sure to raise objections if Democrats attempt to do so with COVID-19 stimulus.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R- Mo., a member of Senate Republican leadership, predicted Tuesday that litigation was possible if Democrats tried to force a minimum wage increase through the budget reconciliation process.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said it would be “irresponsible” for Democrats to push through a package through reconciliation while negotiations were ongoing.
“Give us a chance,” he said.
Portman is part of a bipartisan group of 16 senators and two House lawmakers who met with top Biden administration officials by Zoom on Sunday. The lawmakers pressed the administration on the justification for the price tags for all of the programs the administration wanted included in the package.
But progressives are unfazed by Republicans’ opposition to using reconciliation. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is the incoming chair of the Senate Budget Committee, told reporters Wednesday, "The minimum wage has got to be raised to 15 bucks; we think that can be done by reconciliation and I think I can get that done."
Lawmakers have also raised concerns about their ability to work on COVID-19 as former President Donald Trump’s impeachment looms over the Senate. The trial could put a halt to most work in the chamber as lawmakers deliberate over Trump's fate.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., told reporters Monday that they had a “two-week window” to make progress on a COVID-19 relief deal before legislative progress might grind to a halt. Still, other senators took a longer view of negotiations.
Romney told reporters Monday that the “key” was to have “something in place that will extend unemployment insurance after March 14, when it’s due to expire.”
Schumer, for his part, insisted Tuesday that the Senate will be able to work on Cabinet nominations, impeachment, and COVID-19 relief “simultaneously.”
The Biden administration wants to pass the relief package in the next month. Biden said Monday that “time is of the essence.”
“There's an urgency to moving it forward, and he certainly believes ...there needs to progress in the next couple of weeks,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. She added that if the relief package was not passed soon, there would be a point where there would not be enough funding for vaccine distribution or funding to reopen schools this year.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 relief: Biden's plan faces resistance in Congress