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Vaccines emerge as top priority as Biden, Congress try to craft a Covid relief bill

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about his administration’s plans to respond to the economic crisis during a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) response event in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, January 22, 2021.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

President Joe Biden‘s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan faces a daunting path to 60 Senate votes as centrist lawmakers signal support for a smaller package based around vaccine distribution money.

White House officials held a call Sunday with 16 Democratic and Republican senators to discuss the plan, which includes calls for funds to streamline vaccinations, $1,400 direct payments, a $400 weekly unemployment supplement, and state and local government support.

Comments following the meeting suggest Biden could win bipartisan support for Covid-19 vaccine money — but may not win Republican votes for many of his other proposals.

The senators on the call agreed that producing and distributing shots is their top priority, a person familiar with the discussions said. However, a handful of Republican and Democratic senators left the meeting questioning the Biden team’s proposed price tag, indicating the White House may have to scale back its ambitions in order to win bipartisan support.

The administration faces a dilemma. As the Senate group pledges to continue its talks, the White House could choose to get behind a smaller bipartisan bill if one develops. Otherwise, Democrats can put at least some of their relief priorities into legislation that could pass in a majority vote through budget reconciliation, which would require only Democratic support in a 50-50 Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has not ruled out using the process to approve pandemic aid.

“We hope our Republican friends will see the need and work with us, but if not, we will get it done. There are other means that we can use, including reconciliation, that will enable us to do this,” he told reporters in New York on Sunday.

A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request to comment on whether the GOP skepticism makes Biden more likely to urge the use of budget reconciliation

The push for fresh relief comes as more than 3,000 Americans lose their lives to the virus every day on average, and the Biden administration tries to ramp up a sluggish vaccine rollout. Biden signed multiple executive orders during his first days in office designed both to curb the outbreak and mitigate an economic crisis that has left about 16 million people receiving jobless benefits as of earlier this month.

The U.S. has administered nearly 22 million vaccine doses so far, and more than 3 million people have received both shots, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Biden wants the U.S. to administer 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office as the country seeks a level of immunity that would allow governments to lift public health restrictions.

As the Senate tries to confirm Biden’s Cabinet nominees and prepares to start former President Donald Trump‘s impeachment trial in two weeks, the Democratic-led House is poised to take the lead on another relief bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that while the chamber is out of session this week, committees will work on a coronavirus relief bill “so that we are completely ready to go to the floor” with a plan next month.

It is unclear now how much the House legislation will resemble Biden’s plan. Democratic leaders have also called vaccine distribution a priority.

Democrats can get a bill through the House without Republican votes. Still, the party cannot afford many defections from within its ranks, as it holds a narrow 221-211 majority.

Many Democrats in Congress have pushed to pass another sweeping relief bill as quickly as possible. Incoming Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has urged his party to use reconciliation to pass parts of Biden’s plan, including a $15 per hour federal minimum wage.

The Senate poses a bigger challenge for Democrats than the House. Republicans have showed little interest in another large spending package after lawmakers passed a $900 billion aid plan last month.

Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, told CNN on Sunday that the senators asked Biden officials for more explanation of how they decided on spending figures, including a $130 billion sum to help schools reopen safely.

“We also were planning to get together probably at the latest on Tuesday to see whether a bipartisan package can be put together. It’s not going to be easy,” King said. “And remember we just passed a package less — about three weeks ago, so there’s a lot of work to do on this one.”

Maine’s other senator, Republican Susan Collins, also joined the call. Following the meeting, she told NBC News through a spokesperson that it is “premature to be considering a package of this size and scope.”

She said she supports more vaccine distribution money, but argued a bill should put more constraints on who receives the $1,400 direct payments. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has also contended lawmakers need to better target another round of stimulus checks.

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican on the call who announced Monday he would not run for reelection, also urged Biden to scale back the plan.

“I hope the Administration will work with us on a more targeted approach that focuses on things like vaccine distribution, testing and getting kids back to school,” he said in a statement.

The Biden administration has argued the federal government risks doing too little to boost the health-care system and economy. National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, who led the meeting with senators, told reporters Friday that “we’re at a precarious moment” in responding to the pandemic.

“What I can tell you is, if we don’t act now, we will be in a much worse place, and we will find ourselves needing to do much more to dig out of a much deeper hole,” he said.

After the call with senators, senior administration officials told reporters that the meeting was “constructive across the board,” according to NBC News.

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