Mitt Romney says Biden shows ‘genuine interest’ in working with GOP on pandemic aid package

They spend two hours discussing differences, but vow to keep discussion moving forward.

(Evan Viccu | AP) Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, right, holds the door for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, as they walk over to speak to reporters about coronavirus relief negotiations after meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House, Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, in Washington.

After a longer-than-expected two-hour meeting Monday with President Joe Biden, Sen. Mitt Romney said the president “has genuine interest in working with” Republicans to close a gap on their competing proposals for a pandemic aid package.

“It was not just a check-the-box meeting,” Romney said in a call with Utah reporters. “We had a full airing of our different points of view and a direction by the president to continue our discussions.”

Biden is pushing for a $1.9 trillion package, while a group of 10 centrist Republicans that includes Romney seeks only about a third as much, $618 billion.

“There are differences in almost every area,” Romney said. “Even though we disagree, we are not disagreeable. … We’re going to continue to have big differences. But we can work with each other and understand our respective points of view.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that Biden “noted many areas which the Republican senators’ proposal does not address,” the Washington Post reported.

Romney listed several samples of current sticking points.

For example, Biden wants more stimulus payments of $1,400 per taxpayer. The group of 10 wants only $1,000 payments targeted to people who earn less than $100,000 a year per married couple.

Romney said, “These checks should be focused on lower income people.”

He added there is “a real effort on our part to make sure that if we do need additional funding, that we make sure we’re spending on actual need, not just sending money out that’s not absolutely required.”

Romney said another sticking point is that Biden is pushing to more than double the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour — which Republicans jettisoned from their proposal. The senator said Biden’s proposal is “an enormous leap that would cause a lot of small businesses to be just crushed.”

Romney said he would personally would rather see the minimum wage raised to a lower figure — perhaps $10 an hour — but then raised automatically every year to match the consumer price index.

The federal minimum wage hasn’t budged since it was set at $7.25 per hour in 2007, the longest period of time it hasn’t been raised since it first was established in 1938.

A poll last year by Pew Research found that two-thirds of Americans support an increase to $15 an hour.

Another difference is how much aid should go to help schools fight COVID and offer in-person classes. Biden seeks $170 billion. The 10 Republicans say only $20 billion is needed. “That’s a figure that has come from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control],” Romney said.

Several among the group of 10 Republicans negotiating the pandemic relief bill were part of a bipartisan group of senators that helped break logjams on previous pandemic aid bills — a bit of end run around normal negotiations between a president and Senate party leaders, such as Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell.

“We obviously are in touch with Leader McConnell, and he has encouraged our effort. But this is something we’ve done with the same folks that have been able to break logjams of the past,” Romney said.

The senator noted that Democrats and Biden could push through his pandemic aid package without any Republican help by using special budget rules that require a simple Senate majority of 50 votes. But Senate rules require 60 votes on most other issues to cut off debate, and some are urging Biden not to burn GOP bridges now if he wants Republican help later.

“Down the road, they are going to need us,” Romney said. “And if you want to get off on a good foot of showing respect to the opposite party, then you can work on a collaborative basis to see if you can find common ground.”

He added that using the special budget rules would take some time, and could stall passage of Biden’s package until mid-March. “Whereas we have the potential to perhaps be done within a week” if he works with Republicans to pass what both sides want the most.

The group of 10 also released details of their scaled-down proposal Monday before their meeting with Biden.

Among the proposals the Republican group unveiled Monday are:

• $220 million for stimulus checks. The senators propose $1,000 per person, instead of the $1,600 proposed by Biden. For singles, payments would begin phasing out for those who make $40,000 a year with a $50,000 cap. For joint filers, the check would start phasing out at $80,000 a year with a $100,000 cap. No check would go to convicted inmates.

• $130 billion to provide $300 a week in extra unemployment benefits through June 30.

• $3 billion to extend extra Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly called Food Stamps, through Sept. 30. Also, an extra $3 billion to Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

• $20 billion for a “Getting Children Back to School” initiative.

• $40 billion for another round of the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses, including $5 billion for investigations and audits to identify cheating.

• $10 billion for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program for small businesses.

• $20 billion for the National Vaccine Program in partnership with states, tribes and territories.

• $50 billion for expansion of COVID-19 testing.

• $30 billion for a Disaster Relief Fund.

• $5 billion for personal protective equipment for first responders, doctors and dentists.

• $15 billion to rebuild and restock the National Strategic Stockpile.

• $35 billion to rebuild and restock the Provider Relief Fund, with 20% set aside for rural hospitals.

• $20 billion for a child care and development block grant.

The group of 10 GOP senators negotiating with Biden include Romney and Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Rob Portman (Ohio), Bill Cassidy (Louisiana), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Todd C. Young (Indiana), Shelley Moore Capito (West Virginia), Jerry Moran (Kansas), Mike Rounds (South Dakota) and Thom Tillis (North Carolina).