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Biden will meet Republicans, including Murkowski, who are proposing much smaller pandemic relief package

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is to meet on Monday with a group of 10 Republican senators who have proposed $618 billion in coronavirus aid, about a third of the $1.9 trillion he is seeking as congressional Democrats are poised to move ahead without GOP support.

The Republican group’s proposal focuses on the pandemic’s health effects, tapping into bipartisan urgency to shore up the nation’s vaccine distribution and vastly expanding virus testing with $160 billion in aid. That’s the same as Biden’s proposed total, while their slimmed down $1,000 direct payments would go to fewer households than the $1,400 Biden has proposed, and they would avoid costly assistance to states and cities that Democrats argue are just as important.

Gone are Democratic priorities such as a gradual lifting of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Engaging the White House in high-profile bipartisan talks is certain to appeal to Biden’s wish to unify the nation. But Democrats are determined to push ahead with votes as soon as this week in the House and Senate on broader budget resolutions that will lay the groundwork for approving a COVID relief bill with their new majority in Congress.

The goal is for COVID passage by March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid expires.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there is “obviously a big gap” between the $1.9 trillion package Biden has proposed and the $618 billion counteroffer.

Psaki said Monday that the meeting with Republican lawmakers would be an “exchange of ideas” but Biden would reiterate his stance that “the risk is not that it is too big, this package, the risk is that it is too small.”

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The overture from the coalition of 10 GOP senators, mostly centrists, is an attempt to show that at least some in the Republican ranks want to work with Biden’s new administration, rather than simply operating as the opposition in the minority in Congress. But Democrats are wary of using too much time courting GOP support that may not materialize or delivering too meager a package as they believe happened during the 2009 recovery.

The accelerating talks came as the Congressional Budget Office delivered mixed economic forecasts Monday with robust growth expected at a 4.5% annual rate but employment rates not to return to pre-pandemic levels for several years.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the incoming chairman of the Finance Committee, said the Republicans’ proposed three-month extension of jobless benefits in particular is a “non-starter.”

“The package outlined by 10 Senate Republicans is far too small to provide the relief the American people need,” Wyden said. He said with the current round of jobless aid set to soon expire, Democrats want no less than a six-month unemployment benefit extension. Workers “shouldn’t be constantly worrying that they are going to lose their income overnight,” he said.

An invitation to the GOP senators to meet at the White House came hours after the lawmakers sent Biden a letter on Sunday urging him to negotiate rather than try to ram through his relief package solely on Democratic votes.

“We recognize your calls for unity and want to work in good faith with your Administration to meet the health, economic, and societal challenges of the COVID crisis,” the 10 GOP senators wrote to Biden. “We share many of your priorities.”

The cornerstone of the GOP plan is $160 billion for the health care response — vaccine distribution, a “massive expansion” of testing, protective gear and funds for rural hospitals, according to a draft.

Other elements of the package are similar but at far lesser amounts, with $20 billion to reopen schools and $40 billion for Paycheck Protection Program business aid.

Under the GOP proposal, $1,000 direct payments would go to individuals earning up to $40,000 a year, or $80,000 for couples. The proposal would begin to phase out the benefit after that, with no payments for individuals earning more than $50,000, or $100,000 for couples. That’s less than Biden’s proposal of$1,400 direct payments at higher incomes levels.

With Biden’s plan, the direct payments would be phased out at higher income levels, and families with incomes up to $300,000 could receive some stimulus money.

The meeting to be hosted by Biden would amount to the most public involvement for the president in the negotiations for the next round of virus relief.

Winning the support of 10 Republicans would be significant for Biden in the 50-50 Senate where Vice President Kamala Harris is the tie-breaker. If all Democrats were to back an eventual compromise bill, the legislation would reach the 60-vote threshold necessary to overcome potential blocking efforts and pass under regular Senate procedures.

The plea for Biden to give bipartisan negotiations more time comes as the president has shown signs of impatience as the more liberal wing of his party considers passing the relief package through a process known as budget reconciliation. That would allow the bill to pass with a 51-vote majority in the Senate, rather than the 60 votes typically needed to advance.

“If you can’t find bipartisan compromise on COVID-19, I don’t know where you can find it,” said Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who also signed the letter.

Brian Deese, the top White House economic adviser leading the administration’s outreach to Congress, indicated the administration could be open to negotiating on limiting the income thresholds for who would receive stimulus checks.

“That is certainly a place that we’re willing to sit down and think about, are there ways to make the entire package more effective?” Deese said.

Biden also spoke on Sunday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who are facing pressure from the more liberal Democratic members to move forward with Biden’s legislation with or without Republican support.

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The other GOP senators invited to meet with Biden are Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Todd Young of Indiana, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

As a candidate, Biden said his decades in the Senate and his eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president give him credibility as a deal-maker and would help him bring Republicans and Democrats to consensus on the most important matters facing the country.

But less than two weeks into his presidency, Biden has shown frustration with the pace of negotiations at a time when the economy is showing further evidence of wear from the pandemic. Last week, 847,000 Americans applied for unemployment benefits, a sign that layoffs remain high as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage.

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Associated Press writer Alexandra Jaffe contributed to this report.

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