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White House holds call with senators to drum up bipartisan support for Covid-19 relief package

Money for vaccine distribution was viewed as the top priority on a Sunday call that President Joe Biden’s top economic official held with a group of senators to discuss the administration’s proposed Covid-19 relief package, according to one person on the call.

Sunday’s meeting, which came as the White House pushes for bipartisan support of the $1.9 trillion proposal, was described as productive, according to the person, who said that members wanted more details and evidence of where the money was needed most. The person said there was a desire to ensure that stimulus checks are targeted to those who need it most.

Coined the American Rescue Plan, Biden has deemed the proposal a top legislative priority in the early days of his term. Brian Deese, the director of the White House’s National Economic Council, hosted the call with as many as 16 senators — eight Democrats and eight Republicans were invited.

The White House still wants to pursue the $1.9 trillion package as one big package, rather than splitting it up, the person on the call added. That means the Democrats may ultimately choose to use the budget reconciliation process where they can advance legislation with 51 Senate votes since such a measure cannot be filibustered.

A separate source told CNN that the call was a “great” first meeting and this bipartisan group will continue to work together, discussing a pathway forward on another relief package. That source said everyone agreed the number one need is quickly producing and efficiently distributing a vaccine across the country.

The source also said the call was about an hour and 15 minutes, with White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients and director of legislative affairs Louisa Terrell also joining.

“President Biden and his advisors will continue to engage and consult bipartisan groups of lawmakers, including today, to make the case why urgent action is needed to get relief to hard-hit communities and families and more resources to public health officials so we can ramp up vaccinations,” one White House official told CNN.

GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, however, said in a statement to CNN Sunday evening, “It seems premature to be considering a package of this size and scope.”

“That concern, which I had prior to the briefing, remains a concern of mine,” she said of the bill’s size.

Collins added that she will, “suggest that our bipartisan, bicameral group get together and see if we could come up with a more targeted package that would address unmet needs that we are experiencing now.”

CNN has reported that Biden’s stimulus proposal already faces Republican objections, and Senate Democrats have been laying the groundwork to use a rare procedural tactic known as reconciliation to pass major parts of the package if Republicans stall their efforts.

Pressed earlier Sunday on whether the President will hold out for bipartisanship agreement to pass the package amid growing reports of Republican unease, White House chief of staff Ron Klain said the administration does want to see the proposal passed quickly, but that engaging both sides is not the “enemy” of speed.

“We’re reaching out to people,” Klain said. “I don’t think bipartisanship and speed are enemies of one another. The need is urgent.”

Deese told reporters Friday that the goal was to be “reaching out to members of Congress from both parties to make the case for the rescue plan and to engage with them (and) understand their concerns,” a mandate from Biden himself.

Among the Republican senators invited to join the call is Mitt Romney of Utah, who told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” earlier Sunday that while he wants to “hear what the White House has to say” on its proposal, he’s worried about the prospect of the US borrowing more money “for things that may not be absolutely necessary.”

But the senator noted that “Republicans like me have demonstrated (that) we’re open to compromise” and have “demonstrated a capacity to compromise.”

Responding later on the same program to the Utah senator’s comments, Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats, told Bash, “Well, I don’t know what the word compromise means. I know that working families are living today in more economic desperation than since the Great Depression. And if Republicans are willing to work with us to address that crisis, welcome. Let’s do it.”

But Democrats, he said, cannot “wait weeks and weeks and months and months to go forward.” Sanders was not among the senators invited onto the White House call, according to CNN’s tally.

Sanders, the incoming chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has voiced support for Democrats using reconciliation to pass major parts of the relief package if Republicans stand in the way.

“We’re going to use reconciliation — that is 50 votes in the Senate, plus the vice president — to pass legislation desperately needed by working families in this country right now,” he said, shrugging off the possibility of Republicans not supporting the package.

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