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Biden stimulus gets skeptical response from Republican moderates

“We just passed a program with over $900 billion in it,” Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, said of President Biden's stimulus package. “I’m not looking for a new program in the immediate future.”
“We just passed a program with over $900 billion in it,” Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, said of President Biden's stimulus package. “I’m not looking for a new program in the immediate future.”Graeme Jennings/Associated Press

President Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan got a skeptical response from two Senate Republicans whose backing he would likely need for quick congressional passage.

GOP Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, a member of the bipartisan group of senators who helped propel talks on the $900 billion stimulus enacted last month, said shortly after Biden’s inauguration he thinks it’s too early for Congress to act again.

“We just passed a program with over $900 billion in it,” Romney told reporters. “I’m not looking for a new program in the immediate future.”

Another member of that group told reporters she doesn’t disagree with Biden that another round of help for an ailing economy is needed. Still, she said, it’s going to take some time to consider it.

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“The ink is just barely dry on the $900 billion, and what the president is proposing is significant — $1.9 trillion,” said Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican. “It’s going to require, I think, a fair amount of of debate and consideration.”

Biden’s proposal, offered last week, is the opening salvo in a legislative fight that could be prolonged by the go-big price tag and the inclusion of initiatives — like a minimum-wage increase — that are opposed by most Republicans.

With the Senate becoming a 50-50 partisan split, Biden will need at least 10 Republicans to speed his plan through that chamber. Alternatively, incoming Democratic Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer could use the so-called reconciliation process, which only requires 51 votes — but some parts of the stimulus bill are likely to prove difficult if not impossible to qualify for those rules.

“Even to get 50 Democrats on board, my guess is that number has to come down,” Jason Furman, who served as head of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, said on Bloomberg TV.

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Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell faced challenges negotiating the last package of relief, with dozens of his members opposed to further aid through much of the summer and fall. When a package finally passed Dec. 22 as part of a mammoth year-end spending package, six GOP senators voted against the broad-based bill.

Biden’s proposal has elements designed to appeal to moderate Republicans to help it gain traction in the Senate — including a $400 billion effort to contain the coronavirus and speed the economy’s reopening, as well as $1,400 in additional direct stimulus payments.

Other parts are set to spur partisan warfare, including Biden’s proposals to more than double the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, provide large-scale aid for state governments and offer higher unemployment benefits through September.

Negotiations could end up producing a smaller bipartisan package in the coming weeks, followed by a larger budget bill later in the year with Democratic priorities. Biden said he plans to unveil a second major economic program, aimed at longer-term economic rebuilding, at a joint session of Congress next month.

Biden’s nominee for Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, made the argument Tuesday to Senate lawmakers that historically low interest rates allow for going bigger on economic help now. But she met objections from Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee.