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Biden flexible on who gets aid, tells lawmakers to ‘go big’

ap photo Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., takes a photo of, from left, Vice President Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden, and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y., during a meeting to discuss a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday in Washington.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden encouraged Democratic lawmakers Wednesday to “act fast” on his $1.9 trillion COVID rescue plan but also signaled he’s open to changes, including limiting the proposed $1,400 direct payments to Americans with lower income levels, which could draw Republican support.

Biden told lawmakers in private comments he’s “not married” to an absolute number for the overall package but wants them to “go big” on pandemic relief and “restore the soul of the country.”

“Look, we got a lot of people hurting in our country today,” Biden said on a private call with House Democrats. “We need to act. We need to act fast.”

On the direct payments, Biden said he doesn’t want to budge from the $1,400 promised to Americans. But he said he is willing to “target” the aid, which would mean lowering the income threshold to qualify.

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

Biden spoke with House Democrats and followed with a meeting of top Senate Democrats at the White House, deepening his public engagement with lawmakers on his American Rescue Plan. Together the virus and economic aid is his first legislative priority and a test of the administration’s ability to work with Congress to deliver.

Biden’s remarks to the Democratic House caucus were relayed by two people who requested anonymity to discuss the private conference call.

While Biden is trying to build bipartisan support from Republicans, he is also prepared to rely on the Democratic majority in Congress to push the package into law. Democrats moved ahead with preliminary steps, including a House budget vote Wednesday largely along party lines, to approve it on their own, over Republicans objections. A group of 10 Republican senators offered a $618 billion alternative with slimmer $1,000 direct payments and zero aid for states and cities, but Biden panned it as insufficient, though private talks with the Republicans continue.

At the start of his meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and 10 top Senate Democratic committee chairmen in the Oval Office, Biden sounded confident he could still win over GOP support.

“I think we’ll get some Republicans,” Biden said.

With a rising virus death toll and strained economy, the goal is to have COVID-19 relief approved by March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid measures expire. Money for vaccine distributions, direct payments to households, school reopenings and business aid are at stake.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the president fully recognizes the final package may look different than the one he initially proposed.

She said further targeting the $1,400 payments “means not the size of the check, it means the income level of the people who receive the check.” That’s under discussion, she said.

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