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DJ Biden Pitches Covid-19 Relief Plan to Voters as Hopes for GOP Support Fade -- Update

· 02/05/2021 18:43
By Tarini Parti and Catherine Lucey

WASHINGTON -- President Biden, facing dim chances of winning many Republican votes in Congress for his Covid-19 relief package, is turning to a time-tested White House strategy: pitch the policy to voters of both parties instead.

The White House has been touting polling data showing that Mr. Biden's $1.9 trillion proposal is broadly popular with Americans, including a Quinnipiac survey showing 68% support nationally. "This IS a bipartisan agenda," chief of staff Ron Klain said on Twitter. Meanwhile, top White House aides have pitched the plan in hundreds of meetings with mayors, local elected officials, unions and business associations and participated in national and local television interviews.

Mr. Biden on Friday met with Democratic lawmakers, who had moved forward with a process that would allow them to pass a relief package with no Republican votes. The president later said in televised remarks that while he would like Republican support for his bill, he didn't think GOP lawmakers were willing to do enough to offset the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some congressional Republicans balked at the White House pointing to national polls to call its plan bipartisan, as Democrats prepare to pass it along party lines.

"I think the idea that they're claiming that as evidence of bipartisanship shows you how desperate they are for a fig leaf that they are doing something bipartisan," said Sen. Bill Cassidy, (R., LA), who was among a group of 10 Republicans who met with Mr. Biden at the White House Monday.

It remains unclear what the final version will look like, as Congress now has to write the legislation. Republicans have raised concerns about the cost of Mr. Biden's proposal, which includes $1,400-per-person direct payments to most households and funds for vaccine distribution and schools. GOP lawmakers and some Democrats are opposed to his proposal to use the package to increase the minimum wage.

The recent Quinnipiac poll found that 97% of Democrats support Mr. Biden's coronavirus-relief proposal. Among Republicans, 47% opposed it, 37% were in favor and 16% didn't offer an opinion. Asked about the president's proposal to send $1,400 payments to many Americans, 78% of the poll respondents said they were in favor. The survey of 1,075 adults had a margin of error of 3 percentage points. Other polls, including one from Yahoo News/YouGov, have found similar levels of overall support for the proposal.

Mr. Cassidy's group offered a counterproposal with a $618 billion price tag. Mr. Biden has repeatedly said publicly and privately that the moment requires a big swing, but he has indicated flexibility in some areas, including potentially sending direct payments to a smaller group of Americans.

"What Republicans have proposed is either to do nothing or not enough," the president said Friday. "All of a sudden, many of them have rediscovered fiscal restraint and concern for the deficit. Don't kid yourself. This approach will come with a cost."

White House aides say they continue to seek Republican support on the Hill, pointing to Mr. Biden's meetings with congressional Republicans and his outreach. Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) has said she has talked to Mr. Biden several times.

The White House sent memos, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, to Republicans breaking down how $130 billion in proposed funding for schools would be spent, and arguing that the GOP proposal for direct payments wouldn't provide money to those who need it the most. Mr. Cassidy said the memos weren't detailed enough to answer all of Republicans' questions.

White House counselor Steve Ricchetti said they were "putting the elbow grease into the effort to both debrief and to have a dialogue with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle in a very extensive way."

Vice President Kamala Harris has taken a key role in the outreach, making calls to senators as well as to small businesses and mayors from both parties, according to a White House official. Ms. Harris and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen held a virtual roundtable with participants from more than 140 Black chambers of commerce across the country Friday to talk about Mr. Biden's proposal.

"Part of our strategy has been to communicate very broadly about the priorities and the urgency and the emergency nature of what we have on the table," Mr. Ricchetti said. He added: "Our effort, and this has been in particular on the part of the president, but also kind of deeper in the administration, has been very wide."

Ms. Harris recently did media interviews in Arizona and West Virginia -- states that are represented by moderate Democrats, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin, respectively. In an interview with a West Virginia TV station, Ms. Harris misspoke and referred to "abandoned land mines" instead of "abandoned mine lands." The interview annoyed Mr. Manchin, who said the White House hadn't given him a heads-up.

Mr. Manchin later said he would support the $1.9 trillion price tag for Mr. Biden's plan, and West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, called for Congress to "go big" during an interview on MSNBC. At least 31 Republican mayors, including in red states like Texas and Oklahoma, are supporting Mr. Biden's proposal, according to a list provided by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, one of the Republicans backing the Covid-relief package, said he has been in regular touch with the White House, including Ms. Harris, to talk about state and local aid funding and reimbursements for vaccine distribution. He said he hasn't heard from any congressional Republicans about their proposals.

"There's Washington and there's the rest of the world, and I think you want to make sure that the non-Washington people, which is everybody essentially, is on board," he said.

Administration officials have also met with bipartisan groups of state treasurers, secretaries of state and county officials as part of the lobbying effort this week. Mr. Biden is expected to participate in an interview that will air before the Super Bowl.

Stumping for national support for a big proposal amid mixed feelings in Washington is a standard presidential move. President Barack Obama hit the road to garner support for his health-care overhaul, and President George W. Bush did the same for his tax cut plan.

Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist and former aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R. Ky.), said that he doubted the accuracy of the polling showing the popularity of the package and that some Republicans might have supported a smaller package.

"Ultimately, what I think Republicans are going to wind up arguing in the midterms -- and they'll have plenty of evidence -- is that Biden moved farther left faster and more radically than we could have ever imagined," he said.

--Lindsay Wise contributed to this article.

Write to Tarini Parti at Tarini.Parti@wsj.com and Catherine Lucey at catherine.lucey@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 05, 2021 18:43 ET (23:43 GMT)

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