Biden says he's willing to negotiate parameters of covid-19 deal, but 'time is of the essence'

WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden said Monday he's open to negotiations on his $1.9 trillion covid relief proposal - including on the structure of a new round of stimulus checks - but insisted that "time is of the essence" in moving the package forward.

The president spoke as congressional Democrats prepared for a go-it-alone strategy on the proposal that could bring initial votes in the House and Senate as soon as next week - with or without GOP support.

Biden insisted at an event at the White House that he is courting Republican support for his proposal, saying, "I prefer these things to be bipartisan."

He specifically referenced a 16-member bipartisan group of senators that conferred with top White House officials on Sunday and raised a variety of concerns, including asking whether a new round of $1,400 stimulus checks in the proposal could be targeted to those most in need.

As structured by House Democrats, some portion of the checks could end up going to families making more than $300,000 a year who haven't suffered income loss in the pandemic.

"I proposed that because it was bipartisan, I thought it would increase the prospects of passage, the additional $1,400 in direct cash payments to folks," Biden said at an event at the White House. "Well there's legitimate reasons for people to say 'Do you have the lines drawn the exact right way? Should it go to anybody making X number of dollars or Y?' I'm open to negotiate those things."

Biden said that "this is just the process beginning" on negotiations over his relief package, which he unveiled before his inauguration.

But he also laid out a tight time frame, suggesting that the process would end "probably in a couple weeks," which might not allow for the kind of protracted negotiations necessary to produce a bipartisan bill, especially in light of growing opposition from a number of Republicans saying it's too expensive.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., weighed in on the proposal for the first time on Monday, saying it "misses the mark."

Noting that Congress just approved an additional $900 billion in pandemic relief in December, McConnell said: "Any further action should be smart and targeted, not just an imprecise deluge of borrowed money that would direct huge sums toward those who don't need it."

In addition to the new round of stimulus checks, Biden's proposal includes an increase and extension of emergency unemployment benefits set to expire in mid-March, an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments, schools, vaccine production and distribution, increased testing, and more.

Democrats are making plans to use a budgetary tool known as "reconciliation," which would allow the package to pass with a simple majority vote in the Senate, instead of the 60 votes normally required for major legislation. This approach could amount to an abandonment of Biden's calls for bipartisan unity, but many Democrats say the matter is too urgent to wait.

The Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, and it's looking unlikely that Biden's plan could garner 60 votes in the chamber given the level of GOP opposition.

Asked Monday how long he would try to get GOP support before greenlighting reconciliation, Biden said the decision on reconciliation would be made by congressional leaders.

The first step in that process is for the House and Senate to pass budget bills that lay out the terms for passing the actual coronavirus relief legislation. House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said Monday that his committee is in the process of drafting a budget bill and "we will be prepared to go to the floor as early as next week."

The Senate is also prepared to vote on a budget resolution as early as next week, according to a senior Democrat involved in planning who spoke on the condition of anonymity ahead of a public announcement.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has been outspoken in favor of using the "budget reconciliation" process, saying on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday: "We're going to use reconciliation -- that is 50 votes in the Senate, plus the vice president -- to pass legislation desperately needed by working families in this country right now."

The Senate is set to convene for former president Donald Trump's impeachment trial on Feb. 9, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki indicated Monday that Biden wanted to see action on his relief bill before then. Reaching agreement on a final package in the next two weeks is not realistic, but passing budget resolutions would at least get the process started.