The Oklahoman

Biden urges Senate Dems to rally behind $1.9T virus bill

- By Alan Fram

WASHINGTON — President Joe Bid en urged Senate Democrats on Tuesday to rally behind a $1.9 trillion COVIDrelie­f bill and stood by his proposed $ 1,400 payments to individual­s, even as some party moderates sought to dial back parts of the package.

“He said we need to pass this bill and pass it soon. That's what the American people sent us here to do, and we have to get America the help it needs,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters, describing a 20-minute conference call Biden had with Democratic senators.

The president' s cry for unity came as Democrats, with no votes to spa reina 50-50 Senate, sorted through lingering divisions over the emerging bill. Those included moderates' efforts to focus spending more narrowly on t hose hardest hit by the deadly pandemic and resulting economic contractio­n.

Bid en took to Twitter to signal he wouldn't budge from his demand that lawmakers add a fresh $1,400 payment to the $600 that millions of individual­s received from a December relief measure. That new installmen­t comprises nearly a quarter of the overall bill's cost.

“The fact is that $600 is not enough. The Senate needs to pass the American Rescue Plan and finish the job of delivering $2,000 in direct relief,” Biden wrote in one of his infrequent uses of a medium his predecesso­r, Donald Trump, at times used over 100 times daily.

The huge relief package is a too-big-to-fail moment for the fledging president, who would be politicall­y staggered if Congress—controlled narrowly by Democrats but controlled nonetheles­s— failed to deliver. Conquering the virus that's killed half a million Americans and flung the economy and countless lives into tailspins is Biden's top initial priority.

So far, Republican­s are following the template they set during Barack Obama's presidency. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he hoped GOP senators would oppose the bill unanimousl­y, as their House counterpar­ts did early Saturday when that chamber approved its version of the measure.

McConnell accused Democrats of ignoring signs that the economy and the deadly virus' rampage were beginning to turn around and shunning Republican­s. Biden met with 1 0 GOP senators last month who presented a $600 billion plan one-third the size of his own, but efforts to find middle ground went nowhere.

“The new administra­tion made a conscious effort to jam us,” McConnell told reporters. “We'll be fighting this in every way that we can.”

Democrats are using special rules that will l et them avoid GOP filibuster­s that would require them to garner an impossible 60 votes to approve the legislatio­n.

The Senate bill was expected to largely mirror the Houseappro­ved package, with the most glaring divergence the Senate's dropping of language boosting the federal minimum wage to $15 hourly.

Sc hume rs aid Senate debate would commence as soon as Wednesday and predicted, “We'll have the votes we need top ass the bill .” Democrats want to send a final package to Biden by March 14, when an earlier round of emergency job less benefits expires.

The bil l has hundreds of billions of dollars for schools and colleges, COVID-19 vaccines and testing, mass transit systems, renters and small businesses. It also has money for child care, tax breaks for families with children and assistance for states willing to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income residents.

Two people said Biden told Democrats they must sometimes accept provisions in a large measure that they don't like. And it was clear there were still moving parts.

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