Biden to huddle with Senate Democrats on Covid relief ahead of push for passage

Biden is slated to join Senate Democrats virtually during their caucus lunch Tuesday afternoon, a meeting that comes as Democrats face pressure to stick together to pass the sweeping rescue package. Biden also held a virtual meeting with a group of Senate Democrats on Monday.

The President’s ongoing outreach underscores the important role the narrow Democratic majority will play in getting the Covid package across the finish line. The caucus has no room for error in a chamber with a 50-50 partisan split and Vice President Kamala Harris acting as the tiebreaker.

The House passed the President’s $1.9 trillion package early Saturday morning with zero Republicans voting in favor. Now, all eyes are on the Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could bring the Covid package — which includes direct checks, small business aid, and funding for schools, state and local governments and vaccine distribution — to the floor as early as Wednesday.

Biden and Senate Democrats discussed “targeting” the Covid relief package, but not reducing the overall price tag of the $1.9 trillion bill, according to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who attended the virtual meeting Monday.

Tester said that Biden was mainly in listening mode as Democrats proposed certain changes that could be made through the amendment process. Tester ultimately predicted there would be “modest” changes made.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday during a news briefing that the President’s “focus this week and the coming weeks until it’s passed is on the American Rescue Plan.”

“We’re going to be evaluating day by day what the needs are,” Psaki said when asked about the President’s contact with lawmakers over the measure, adding, “We’ve reserved time in his schedule to ensure that he can be engaged, roll up his sleeves and be personally involved in making phone calls, having more zoom meetings, potentially having people in the Oval Office, to make sure we can get this across the finish line. He will be very involved personally.”

Schumer predicts late nights in the Senate later this week

Schumer said in a floor speech Monday that the Senate will take up the legislation “this week,” saying, “I expect a hardy debate and some late nights.”

One reason late nights are expected and that will make the job of Democratic leadership more challenging is that senators are walking into a legislative minefield later this week since the relief bill is being considered under budget reconciliation rules that allow a free-flowing amendment process, meaning senators can force votes on as many amendments as they like. That means if two Democrats break ranks, they could amend the bill with the backing of 49 Republicans.
Democratic leaders want their caucus to hold the line against amendments that could alter the core of the bill and ultimately derail the chances of getting the sweeping measure out of both chambers by March 14 when jobless benefits are set to expire for millions of Americans.

Once the bill passes the Senate, it will have to go back to the House for a final vote before it can go to Biden’s desk.

The House passed the legislation with a provision to increase the minimum wage. But that can’t be included in the Senate’s version of the bill, according to a ruling from the parliamentarian, a little known but powerful Senate official. As a result, the Senate is expected to strip that provision out in its version of the bill, necessitating a separate vote in the House to sync up the legislation.

Republicans have so far been united in opposition to the measure, which they argue Democrats have crafted without their input and have designed to serve as a liberal wish list of agenda items.

“House Democrats rammed through a bonanza of partisan spending they’re calling a pandemic rescue package,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Monday.

Democrats, for their part, say they are willing to work with Republicans, but will not water down a package that they say will deliver much needed aid to the American people hard hit by the pandemic.

CNN’s Manu Raju, Ted Barrett and Ali Zaslav contributed to this report.

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