Joe Biden, the US president, faces a narrow window to clinch bipartisan support for his $1.9tn stimulus plan, after congressional Democrats said they wanted a deal before the impeachment trial against Donald Trump begins the week of February 8.
On Sunday, Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council in the White House, was due to host a meeting with 16 senators, including eight Republicans, to jump-start talks on Mr Biden’s relief package, which is the new president’s top early legislative priority.
Although Mr Biden has promised to make bipartisan unity a defining trait of his presidency, a number of Republicans have dismissed elements of his relief plan, criticising it for excessive spending and for including provisions such as an increase in the federal minimum wage.
Given that scepticism, Democrats want to quickly gauge Republicans’ appetite for serious negotiations on the stimulus package — which includes direct payments to individuals, aid to states and extra jobless benefits — or move on to try to pass it only with lawmakers of their own party.
Dick Durbin, the Illinois senator and second-highest ranking Democrat in the upper chamber said in interview with NBC News on Sunday that the objective of the call with Mr Deese was to see “if there’s an area of agreement” on the rescue package.
“I am hopeful that we can show right off the bat that bipartisanship is alive in the Senate,” Mr Durbin said.
“The rescue package that President Biden has sent to us is one of the highest importance . . . So, I hope we can really roll up our sleeves and get that done in that period of time [before Mr Trump’s trial].”
Democrats need at least ten Republican senators to endorse the relief plan if they are to pass it using the current practice in the Senate, which requires a supermajority to advance legislation. But failing that, Democrats could pass a relief plan with a simple majority by using a parliamentary process called “budget reconciliation” which is reserved for bills involving taxes and spending. The Senate is evenly split with 50 senators backing each party, but Kamala Harris, the vice-president, can cast tiebreaking votes, handing control to Democrats.
Mike Rounds, a Republican senator from South Dakota, told NBC on Sunday that Democrats should drop their insistence on boosting the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour from $7.25 to help reach a deal.
“I really don't think we're that far off with regard to the direction for Covid relief, specifically in targeted areas,” he said. “The real challenge is whether or not Democrats are prepared to perhaps release some of the items that are not specifically targeted to Covid relief.”
The push for a quick stimulus agreement came on the eve of Monday’s expected move by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives to transmit its article of impeachment against Mr Trump for inciting the January 6 assault on the US Capitol.
Ordinarily, this would trigger the start of the Senate trial against the former president the following day, but Republicans and Democrats reached a deal to delay the core of the proceedings until the week of February 8. For Republicans this is will allow Mr Trump more time to prepare his defence, and for Democrats it will help confirm more of Mr Biden’s cabinet appointees and pass the relief package.
Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Mitt Romney, the Republican senator from Utah, showed he was leaning towards convicting Mr Trump, saying “impeachable conduct” was plausible given Mr Trump’s actions and it was important to have “accountability, for truth and justice”.
But there is unlikely to be enough Republican support to secure that conviction in the upper chamber. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican senator, told Fox News Sunday that Mr Trump bore "responsibility for some of what happened” at the Capitol but he did not agree with impeachment.
“I think the trial is stupid. I think it's counterproductive. We already have a flaming fire in this country and it's like taking a bunch of gasoline and pouring it on top of the fire,” he said.