Officials in President Joe Biden’s administration tried to head off Republican concerns that his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief proposal was too expensive on a Sunday call with Republican and Democratic lawmakers, some of whom pushed for a smaller plan targeting vaccine distribution.
Lawmakers from both parties said they had agreed that getting the COVID-19 vaccine to Americans should be a priority, but some Republicans objected to such a hefty package only a month after Congress passed a $900 billion relief measure.
“It seems premature to be considering a package of this size and scope,” said Republican Senator Susan Collins, who was on the call with Brian Deese, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, and other top Biden aides.
Collins said she agreed additional funding was needed for vaccine distribution, but in a “more limited” bill, and planned to discuss such a measure with other lawmakers.
Senator Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said the call had shown that coronavirus relief was Biden’s top priority.
“We can’t wait,” White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. “Just because Washington has been gridlocked before doesn’t mean it needs to continue to be gridlocked.”
The White House did not provide a readout of the call, but Jared Bernstein, a member of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, told CNN afterward that the $900 billion in relief passed in late 2020 would only help for “a month or two.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 417,000 Americans, thrown millions out of work and is infecting more than 175,000 Americans a day.
Biden, who took office on Wednesday, campaigned on a promise to take aggressive action on the pandemic, which his predecessor, President Donald Trump, often downplayed.
The Trump administration lagged far behind its target of 20 million Americans inoculated by the end of 2020 and left no plan for how to distribute the vaccine to millions of Americans, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said on Sunday.
While Congress has already authorized $4 trillion to respond, the White House says the additional $1.9 trillion is needed to cover the costs of responding to the virus and provide enhanced jobless benefits and payments to households.
At least 16 senators and two House members – Democratic Representative Josh Gottheimer and Republican Tom Reed, co-chairmen of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus – participated in the call.