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Biden looks to ramp up pandemic relief as Republicans press for smaller aid package

Negotiations over new action to stimulate the economy are moving into higher gear Monday. After releasing a $1.9 trillion aid plan last month, President Biden held a first meeting with Senate Republicans who are pushing an alternative plan. White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Negotiations over new action to stimulate the economy are moving into higher gear tonight.

    President Biden has held a first meeting with Senate Republicans, who are pushing an alternative plan.

    White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor reports.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Late this afternoon, President Biden welcomed the group of Republican senators to the White House. He again called for quick action for Americans struggling in the COVID economy.

    The invitation came quickly after 10 Republican senators sent the president a letter outlining their counterproposal to his $1.9 trillion COVID plan. They urged Biden to negotiate, rather than force through his bill solely on Democratic votes.

    The GOP group, led by Senator Susan Collins of Maine, presented a $618 billion plan. That's less than a third of Biden's plan. It includes $160 billion for vaccines, testing, treatment, and personal protective equipment. It also counters the president's proposed direct payment of $1,400 to most Americans with $1,000 targeted to individuals who earn up to $40,000 a year.

    In addition, it calls for $50 billion in aid to small businesses. The GOP plan also provides $20 billion for K-12 schools — Biden is proposing $130 billion for K-12 schools — and for extended federal unemployment benefits through June. Biden proposed extending unemployment insurance programs through September.

    Republicans also zero out Biden's plan to provide $350 billion in emergency funding for state and local governments.

    Today, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, at the meeting, President Biden would not make or accept any offers. She made clear he wants to go big.

  • Jen Psaki:

    The risk is not that it is too big, this package. The risk is that it's too small. His view is that the size of the package needs to be commensurate with the crisis — crises we're facing.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today's talks came as the Congressional Budget Office projected that this year's economic growth will surge, but without any new stimulus bill, the nation's work force will not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.

    The overall unemployment rate is expected to continue declining through 2026. The president and his supporters argue that fresh stimulus is also essential to help ramp up vaccine distribution.

    Today, White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt voiced his frustration with the pace to date.

  • Andy Slavitt:

    When the rollout of the vaccine first began in December and early January, it's no secret that the program got off to a slow start. This slow start obviously caused a delay in people getting their first doses.

    But not only did this delay first doses, but it created a backlog of second doses that have been sitting in states, waiting for the three-to-four-week period to pass before they can be administered.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Ultimately, congressional Democrats insist those are all good reasons to act on pandemic relief now, with or without support of Republicans. They are pressing the president to move quickly, without giving ground.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Yamiche joins me now.

    So, Yamiche, we're hearing the meeting is still under way. Please tell us, what more are you learning about this talks over economic relief?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, President Biden's talk of bipartisanship has now turned into action, and that action is happening right now in the Oval Office.

    He is meeting with the Republican senators who laid out a plan that is only a third of the price, less than a third of the price of his $1.9 trillion plan.

    Now, the White House has been clear to say that this is really an exchange of ideas, that there's not going to be any negotiation for an offer that is at all taken into account or one that is accepted by President Trump — I mean, President Biden with the changes here.

    But that being said, what you see here is Republicans coming to the table and telling Biden, if you want unity, then here is what we can offer you, and your bill is essentially too big.

    White House officials I have been talking to say, they essentially feel like the Republican plan is way too small, and that so much needs to be done, that their plan just simply is not feasible.

    But, on the record, the White House is saying they're open to all sorts of ideas. President Biden spoke to reporters, and he said that he wouldn't answer questions about how much he would take away from his plan. Instead, he joked about the fact that he felt like he was still in the Senate.

    The most telling thing is that, even though he is sitting down with these Republicans, White House officials say that he is still in support of starting to at least go with the process of budget reconciliation.

    It's going to be a wonky word that people are going to get very familiar with, but essentially it means that Democrats might be going it alone and not needing Republican support. So, even though Biden is sitting down with these senators, he's already also, in some ways, already backing the backup plan here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Yamiche, I know you are going to continue to report there at the White House until you know more about what happened at that meeting after it ends.

    But you're not only covering this president. You're covering the former president, Donald Trump. He, as we know, is facing an impeachment trial in the Senate next week.

    And, Yamiche, what are you learning about his legal defense?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, President Trump's legal defense got even more complicated than it already was.

    Over the weekend, he parted with not one, but five attorneys, including the head attorney. His name was Butch Bowers. Now, he was a longtime friend of Senator Lindsey Graham, who, of course, has been a close ally of President Trump.

    Butch Bowers had told The Washington Post he didn't hesitate to try to back the president, to try to defend him. In fact, he said that this was really all about the Constitution. But reports are that President Trump wanted his attorneys to go forward with a claim that he falsely won the 2020 election, essentially trying to repeat some of the disinformation that he — that really led to the mob storming the Capitol.

    And his lawyers didn't want to do that. So they parted ways.

    So, now the president has two new lawyers. One is David Schoen. He's — he was a longtime attorney for Roger Stone. The second person is Bruce Castor Jr. And that is another lawyer who's going to be working with the president.

    So, he has a new legal team. We will — waiting to see whether or not they're going to make the argument that it's unconstitutional to impeach a president while he's out of office, or if they're going to come up with something else.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally, Yamiche, you have also been doing some reporting on how much money the former president was able to raise after the election.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That's right.

    The money story here is really important, walking people through. The president was able to really raise a lot of money even after he lost the 2020 election, $290 million raised by official committees supporting former President Trump and the GOP since November 3, $31.5 million raised by Save America PAC. That's a leadership PAC that President Trump started after his loss.

    And 200 — only $218,000 have been spent by that PAC. So, this really tells you that President Trump still has a big influence over the Republican Party. And he can still use a lot of this money from this PAC, not on its own campaign. That's not allowed. But he can use it on the midterms in 2022. He can use it to sway Republicans.

    So, there are a lot of Republicans who are looking at these fund-raising numbers and saying, don't count President Trump out just yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Significant amount of money. So much to keep an eye on.

    Yamiche Alcindor on the job at the White House.

    Thank you, Yamiche.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks so much.

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