Biden says Covid relief talks with Congress could take 'a couple of weeks'


President Joe Biden said Monday that it could take weeks for Congress to finish talks around a coronavirus relief deal and for Democrats to decide whether they should forge ahead with an aid bill without GOP support.

“I don’t expect we know we’ll have an agreement … until we get right to the very end of this process, which will probably happen in a couple of weeks,” he told reporters after signing an executive order that aims to promote purchases of American-made goods.

He said a decision on whether to use the budget reconciliation process to pass a relief package with only Democratic votes “will depend upon how these negotiations go.” He noted that Democratic leaders in Congress would ultimately decide how to proceed with trying to pass legislation.

White House officials held a call Sunday with 16 Democratic and Republican senators to discuss Biden’s $1.9 trillion aid plan, which includes calls for funds to streamline vaccinations, $1,400 direct payments, a $400 weekly unemployment supplement, and state and local government support.

Biden has made the plan his top priority since entering office Wednesday, saying the health-care system and economy need an immediate jolt as the pandemic weighs them down.

Comments following the meeting suggest Biden could win bipartisan support for Covid-19 vaccine money — but may not earn Republican votes for many of his other proposals. A 60-vote majority looked difficult for him to achieve as GOP lawmakers signaled support for a smaller package based around vaccine distribution funds.

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.

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 to curb the outbreak and mitigate an economic crisis that has left about 16 million people receiving jobless benefits as of earlier this month.

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