Biden team pitches US on big virus aid as Senate starts work

(AP) — As senators launched an all-night session Thursday to lay groundwork for President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, the White House is increasingly focused on selling the plan directly to voters.

Biden’s administration has done 60-plus interviews with national TV and radio shows. There have been spots on local TV news and briefings last week with more than 50 groups, including General Motors, Meals on Wheels America and Planned Parenthood. One of the main goals is to stop people from getting bogged down in the tangle of partisan deal-making and convince them that every penny of the “go big” package is needed.

“The public is not getting caught up in process — what they want is results,” said Cedric Richmond, the White House director of public engagement. “People these days are not worried about the inside-the-Beltway terminology. They’re looking at who’s doing what to help.”

The president told Democratic lawmakers that he views the package’s proposal for $1,400 direct payments to individuals as a foundational promise to voters. It represents a strategic bet by the White House that voters will suspend their partisan beliefs to evaluate the plan and support its massive scope.

Biden has suggested he may be flexible on the $1.9 trillion topline figure for the plan and on ways to more narrowly target who gets direct payments. But the $1,400 amount — on top of $600 in payments approved in December — appears to be nonnegotiable.

“I’m not going to start my administration by breaking a promise to the American people,” he said.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats were on track Thursday to approve a budget resolution that will pave the way for eventually passing the aid package on a party-line vote by Democrats, with or without bipartisan support from Republicans.

Senators were poised for an all-night session to consider amendments that could define the contours of the eventual bill. One from Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, would prevent “upper-income” taxpayers from qualifying for Biden’s proposed $1,400 direct payments and it passed 99-1. No income level was specified.

Vice President Kamala Harris was in attendance, able to cast a tie-breaking vote, if needed, in the chamber that is evenly divided 50-50. A White House aide said the goal is to provide an open and bipartisan debate.

The goal is approval by March deadlines for expiring jobless benefits and other aid.

The Biden package comes after $4 trillion in rescue spending that cushioned the financial blow from the pandemic but did little to stop the disease. It includes politically divisive provisions such as a $15 hourly minimum wage and $350 billion in aid for state and local governments. Ten Republican senators countered with a $618 billion package, one-third of what Biden is offering.