Democrats Press Ahead on Stimulus as Biden Signals Openness to Changes

By Luke Broadwater and Jim Tankersley

The House passed a budget blueprint to allow the president’s $1.9 trillion plan to speed through Congress without Republican backing. But President Biden said he was open to negotiating the details.

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meeting with Democratic senators in the Oval Office on Wednesday. Mr. Biden also met privately with House and Senate Democrats via conference call.
President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meeting with Democratic senators in the Oval Office on Wednesday. Mr. Biden also met privately with House and Senate Democrats via conference call.Credit...Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats and the Biden administration barreled ahead on Wednesday with a $1.9 trillion economic rescue package, even as they signaled a limited willingness to scale back direct payments for Americans in hopes of attracting Republican support.

Voting mostly along party lines, the House adopted a budget blueprint that included President Biden’s sweeping pandemic aid plan, laying the groundwork for Democrats to push it through, if necessary, on a simple majority vote, without Republican support. On the heels of the Senate’s party-line approval of the outline on Tuesday, the action was the latest evidence that Democrats were unified around what the administration has described as a “go-big” approach — and wary of repeating the mistakes of the 2009 stimulus bill, which Democrats delayed and slimmed down in a largely fruitless attempt to bring a large group of Republicans on board.

In private meetings with House and Senate Democrats at the White House and via conference call, Mr. Biden said he was open to negotiating some aspects of the package in the hope that Republicans could be persuaded to back it but had no intention of slashing a plan aimed at addressing the devastating toll of the pandemic.

“We need to act fast,” Mr. Biden told House Democrats on a private conference call, according to two people who attended. “It’s about who the hell we are as a country.”

But Republicans expressed increasing skepticism that they could support the measure unless Mr. Biden significantly scaled back his proposal.

Leading Democrats effectively dared conservatives to oppose the plan. They trumpeted opinion polls indicating broad public support for what Mr. Biden is calling his “American Rescue Plan,” like one from Quinnipiac University that shows that nearly seven in 10 Americans, including more than a third of Republicans, back the proposal.

Among Mr. Biden and leading Democrats in the Senate, “there’s a real sense that there’s real consequences of going small, there’s real consequences of allowing stalling” to court Republican votes, said Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, who was among the senators meeting in person with Mr. Biden on Wednesday. “What Republicans really haven’t gotten their arms around is that what we’re proposing here has strong support from the American people.”

Mr. Biden suggested Wednesday that he might be open to restricting eligibility for a centerpiece of his plan, $1,400 direct payments to many Americans, in a manner Republicans had proposed, but not to paring back the value of the checks.

“We can’t walk away from an additional $1,400 in direct checks, because people need it,” Mr. Biden told the House Democrats, according to the people, who detailed the conversation on the condition of anonymity because the discussion was intended to be private. “I’m not going to start my administration by breaking a promise to people.”

But he added, “We can better target the number — I’m OK with that.”

It was part of a two-track strategy that Mr. Biden and Democrats are employing to speed through the relief package: Show Republicans that they have the votes to pass an ambitious plan with only Democratic backing, but offer to negotiate some details in hopes of gaining Republican support.

Later Wednesday, the president met for an hour and a half at the White House with leading Senate Democrats. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, emerged from the meeting, saying there was “universal agreement we must go big and bold.”

“We want to do it bipartisan, but we must be strong,” Mr. Schumer said. “We cannot dawdle, we cannot delay, we cannot dilute, because the troubles that this nation has and the opportunities that we can bring them are so large.”

Some Republicans have argued that the next round of stimulus checks should go to Americans most in need. Under Mr. Biden’s plan, the full $1,400 payment would be limited to individuals earning no more than $75,000 a year, but those with higher incomes would receive smaller checks.

The president’s signal that he was open to compromise on the matter came a couple of days after he met at the White House with 10 Republican senators who are seeking a $618 billion package they said could win bipartisan backing. Their proposal calls for checks of up to $1,000 that would go only to individuals earning less than $50,000 a year, with the full payment limited to those whose annual income was $40,000 or below.

Republicans, though, seemed unified against the plan unless Mr. Biden made significant concessions.

“If there are no changes, why I wouldn’t think any one Republican will be voting for his proposal,” said Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, a member of the group that met with Mr. Biden on Monday.

As for the $15 minimum wage included in Mr. Biden’s plan, Mr. Romney said flatly, “That’s not going to get passed.”

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters in a news briefing on Wednesday that the lower-cost Republican proposal would leave millions of families vulnerable to hunger and poverty. “Their plan would deny relief to 15 million lower-income essential workers,” she said.

Ms. Psaki also criticized an analysis of the Biden plan released Wednesday by the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Wharton Budget Model, which projected far less benefit to the economy — an increase of 0.6 percent for 2021 — than other analyses of the proposal. “Their model is way off,” she said.

How far Mr. Biden is willing to move is not clear. In the briefing, Ms. Psaki said Mr. Biden would want a kindergarten teacher earning $60,000 a year to receive a check.

Democrats engaged in the discussions said there was some pressure from Republicans and more conservative Democrats to scale back other parts of the package, possibly including money for state and local governments and supplemental benefits for the unemployed. Mr. Wyden said he was fighting to maintain the additional $400-per-week benefit that Mr. Biden has proposed offering to unemployed workers through the end of September, up from $300 now but down from $600 at the start of the crisis.

On the call with House Democrats, Mr. Biden said he was “not married to a particular, absolute number” on the overall stimulus package.

“We can make compromises on several of the programs,” he told them, adding, “We have to take care of the people who are hurting.”

As for cutting the size of the package by more than two-thirds, as the Republicans have proposed, Mr. Biden said on the call that was “not in the cards.”

Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.