A bipartisan group of senators balked at the size of President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief proposal during a call with White House officials on Sunday, raising concerns that the measure provides too much money to high-income Americans.
Biden is pushing for a massive plan that includes $20 billion to accelerate vaccine distribution, a $15-an-hour minimum wage increase, an extension of supplemental unemployment benefits through the end of September, a one-time $1,400 stimulus check, a temporary expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit and $350 billion in new funding for state and local governments.
While the lawmakers largely agreed the top priority should be producing and distributing vaccines, according to a source with knowledge of the matter, some pushed back against the $1,400 stimulus payments and pressed the White House to make them more targeted to individuals in greater need.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, questioned the Biden officials why families making $300,000 would be eligible to receive the cash payment and suggested the relief focus on lower-income workers.
“I was the first to raise that issue, but there seemed to be a lot of agreement … that those payments need to be more targeted,” Collins told Politico. “I would say that it was not clear to me how the administration came up with its $1.9 trillion figure for the package.”
While still unclear what the framework for stimulus check eligibility looks like, if it followed a formula in House-passed legislation last year, the $1,400 stimulus checks would taper off for individuals who earn $75,000 more a year and families making $150,000 or more. But the phaseout level increases for families with more children, meaning that a family with multiple children earning more than $300,000 a year could theoretically receive some money, even if they have not suffered a financial setback during the pandemic.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., the organizer of the call, has previously voiced skepticism about the need for a third stimulus check. At the beginning of January, the moderate Democrat told the Washington Post that he would "absolutely not" support the inclusion of a $2,000 payment in the relief deal.
“How is the money that we invest now going to help us best to get jobs back and get people employed?" he said. "And I can’t tell you that sending another check out is gonna do that to a person that’s already got a check."
Congress has already spent some $4 trillion on pandemic relief measures, including $900 billion approved at the end of December. Although lawmakers broadly agree that another round of emergency aid is needed, they disagree over the size and scope of it, with deficit-weary Republicans sounding the alarm about the price tag.
Unless the Biden administration makes significant changes to the measure, it will almost certainly fail to meet the 60-vote threshold needed to pass the upper chamber.
Democrats could pass the bill using a process known as budget reconciliation, which would allow them to circumvent the 60-vote threshold and advance the measure in the Senate using their slimmest-possible majority, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking any tie. The Biden administration has not ruled out the possibility, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki telling reporters on Wednesday that "we are not going to take any tools off the table."
Still, there are limits on what legislation qualifies for reconciliation and how frequently the process can be used — and Biden campaigned on uniting the country and ending partisan bickering.
The bipartisan group of lawmakers pledged during the call with Brian Deese, Biden's top economic adviser, to continue working together with the administration in order to strike another relief package, the source said.
Fox News' Jason Donner contributed to this report