Biden urges Senate Democrats to go big on his relief package, warns against smaller plan

White House press secretary Jen Psaki participates in a briefing at the White House on Feb 1, 2021, in Washington.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki participates in a briefing at the White House on Feb 1, 2021, in Washington.Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.

WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden urged Senate Democrats on Tuesday to go big on coronavirus relief, making an aggressive case in favor of his $1.9 trillion rescue package as Democrats took the first steps to advance the legislation.

Biden's comments, on a private lunchtime call with the Senate Democratic caucus, were confirmed by several people familiar with his remarks who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were private.

Biden addressed Senate Democrats a day after meeting with a group of Republican senators who are pushing a much narrower, $618 billion bill.

The president made clear to Senate Democrats that he viewed a proposal of that size as inadequate and that the risks of going small outweighed the risks of going big, the people said. Press secretary Jen Psaki emphasized in a press briefing shortly thereafter that the White House stood by the $1.9 trillion top-line figure of its plan.

The Senate took an initial vote Tuesday to advance a budget bill that would pave the way to pass Biden's relief package with a simple majority in the Senate, leaving Republicans out if necessary. The procedural vote to advance to debate on the budget bill was 50-49, with all Democrats voting in favor and one Republican not voting.

The Senate is evenly split between the two parties, with Democrats in the majority because Vice President Harris can break ties.

"President Biden spoke about the need for Congress to act boldly and quickly. He was very strong in emphasizing the need for a big, bold package. He said that he told Senate Republicans that the $600 billion that they proposed was way too small," Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters after the conversation with the president.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also joined the call and emphasized the need for a robust relief package at an unsettled moment for the economy, which has begun shedding more jobs - and for the pandemic, as new coronavirus variants emerge.

"I think it is his belief, it is Secretary Yellen's belief, it is our belief, that if we did a package that small, we'd be mired in the covid crisis for years," Schumer said of the GOP plan.

In the House, Democrats will also take an initial procedural vote Tuesday evening to move forward on the budget resolution setting up party-line passage of the coronavirus relief bill in the Senate.

On the call with Senate Democrats, Biden walked through the various elements of his plan, which includes $1,400 stimulus checks, extended unemployment aid, increased child tax credits, and hundreds of billions of dollars for schools, vaccinations, the health-care system and more.

The president joined the call with Senate Democrats by phone, leaving it without taking questions. He cautioned against demands for overly "targeting" the aid in the package, as Republicans and some Democrats have suggested, giving an example of "nurses and pipe fitters" who are in the middle class but still might be in need of assistance.

Biden also spoke of the need to learn the lessons of previous recessions, when Congress didn't approve enough relief. As vice president under President Barack Obama a decade ago, Biden was involved in crafting a $787 billion relief bill to help the country climb out of the Great Recession. In retrospect, many Democrats and economists say the country would have recovered faster had they passed a larger relief package, but at the time, Republicans balked at a bigger figure.

Biden also spoke during the call about the many people still hurting in the nation, particularly women. He acknowledged Democrats' majority is small but said they will succeed together, according to the people familiar with the call.

"The president's commitment is to urgently deliver relief to the American people, and that's what he's conveyed in every meeting he's had or engagement he's had with Democrats and Republicans," Psaki said.

Psaki emphasized, as did congressional Democrats, that proceeding along the "budget reconciliation" route did not preclude Republican support.

Democrats said they are open to Republican ideas but not to watering down Biden's proposal, a point Psaki has also made.

Multiple Republicans, however, argued that proceeding via reconciliation would undercut Biden's campaign claims that he would govern as a bipartisan unifier.

"It's not a good signal that [Schumer] is adopting a take-it-or-leave-it approach right after his president delivers an inaugural address based on unity," said Sen. Todd C. Young, R-Ind., who was among the Republicans who met with Biden at the White House on Monday evening.

Republicans used the partisan budget reconciliation process after President Donald Trump took office to attempt unsuccessfully to overturn the Affordable Care Act and to pass a massive tax cut bill.