By Jarrett Renshaw and David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Top Democrats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives filed a joint $1.9 trillion budget measure on Monday, in a step toward bypassing Republicans on COVID-19 relief before President Joe Biden met with Republican senators.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the plan to file a fiscal-year 2021 budget measure in the Senate and House, saying it would allow Congress to fast-track a coronavirus package for passage by both chambers.

With Republicans pushing back on Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief proposal, the budget measure would allow Democrats to bypass a 60-vote threshold in the closely divided Senate and enact coronavirus legislation with a simple majority through a procedure called reconciliation.

It would mark the first time congressional Democrats used the maneuver to flex their legislative muscle since winning razor-thin control of the Senate.

The 100-seat Senate is divided 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote to give Democrats the majority.

Schumer spoke ahead of the Oval Office meeting between Biden and 10 Republican senators, who have proposed a scaled-down $618 billion relief package.

“Democrats welcome the ideas and input of our Senate Republican colleagues. The only thing we cannot accept is a package that is too small or too narrow to pull our country out of this emergency,” Schumer said.

Swift congressional action to address the pandemic is a top Biden goal and the president has voiced an interest in working with congressional Republicans. But the White House showed no sign of accepting the Republican proposal.

“The risk is not that it is too big … the risk is that it is too small. And that remains his view, and it’s one he’ll certainly express today,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said ahead of the discussion.

Biden and his staff were expected to present the Republican senators with details on how his COVID-19 relief package would benefit their respective states, a White House aide said.

“Mr. President, 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,” Republican Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney and seven others said in a statement on Monday.

The Republican plan offers no assistance to state and local governments, one of the items that a Biden adviser described as “must-haves” for Democrats in Congress.

According to details released by the lawmakers, the Republican proposal also falls short on another must-have by offering only $1,000 in direct payments to Americans, compared with the $1,400 sought by Biden.

“We have not seen many red lines drawn publicly by Democrats in Congress. I think we will see those red lines if the White House considers taking some things out or delaying some items,” the adviser said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Passage of new relief legislation would not only affect Americans and businesses but offer an early test of Biden’s promise to work to bridge the partisan divide in Washington.

Ten Republican votes, combined with the backing of 50 Democrats and independents, would be enough to move bipartisan legislation quickly through the Senate. There was little cooperation between the two parties on major legislation in Congress under Republican former President Donald Trump.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Scott Malone, Bill Berkrot and Peter Cooney)

Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.



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