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'Very productive, cordial meeting': Collins-led GOP group meets with Biden on COVID-19 relief

Maine Sen. Susan Collins led the group of 10 GOP senators in their meeting with President Joe Biden Monday to discuss their alternate COVID-19 relief package.

WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — A group of 10 Republican senators, led by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, met with President Joe Biden at the White House Monday evening to discuss COVID-19 relief.

On Sunday, the group—comprised of Sens. Collins, Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. Va.), Todd Young (R-Ind.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.)—sent a letter to Biden outlining an alternative to his $1.9 trillion package that’s about one-third the size. 

According to pool reports, Sen. Rounds attended the meeting Monday via phone, while the other nine met with Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and aides in-person in the Oval Office. 

In a media briefing following the first meeting with Biden, Collins said it was a "very productive, cordial two-hour meeting," but an agreement has not yet been reached.

She said they explained to both Biden and Harris the provisions they proposed as part of a $600 billion relief package and that Biden explained in "more depth" the areas that were "not fleshed out as much" in the Presidents' $1.9 trillion package.

"It was a very good exchange of views," Collins said. "I wouldn't say that we came together on a package tonight. No one expected that in a two-hour meeting."

She said they plan to follow up and talk further at the staff level and amongst themselves, as well as with Biden and Harris on "how to keep working together on this important issue."

"All of us are concerned about struggling families, teetering small businesses, an overwhelmed healthcare system getting vaccines out and into people's arms, and strengthening our economy and addressing the public health crisis we face," Collins said.

"I think it was an excellent meeting," she said. "I'm very appreciative that his first official meeting in the Oval Office that he chose to spend so much time with us in a frank and useful discussion."

Collins added that five bipartisan COVID-19 relief packages have been passed so far, and she said she was "hopeful" that they could pass a sixth package.

No other senators spoke, and they did not take any questions.

The alternative package proposes $618 billion in coronavirus aid and focuses on the pandemic's health effects, tapping into bipartisan urgency to shore up the nation's vaccine distribution and vastly expanding virus testing with $160 billion in aid.

During a White House briefing earlier Monday afternoon, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there's "obviously a big gap.” But she said Biden is interested in exchanging ideas.

“In the spirit of bipartisanship and unity, we have developed a COVID-19 relief framework that builds on prior COVID assistance laws, all of which passed with bipartisan support,” the senators wrote to the President. “Our proposal reflects many of your stated priorities, and with your support, we believe that this plan could be approved quickly by Congress with bipartisan support. We request the opportunity to meet with you to discuss our proposal in greater detail and how we can work together to meet the needs of the American people during this persistent pandemic.”

Collins and other Republican senators have opposed Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan, saying there is money from the recent $900 billion relief package that hasn’t yet been spent.

“While I support prompt additional funding for vaccine production, distribution, and vaccinators, and for testing, it seems premature to be considering a package of this size and scope,” Collins said in a statement last week. “Less than a month ago, President Trump signed into law a $900 billion COVID relief package that our bipartisan group played a key role in negotiating. This funding is in addition to the nearly $4 trillion that Congress had provided previously for COVID relief. It appears that approximately $1.8 trillion of that money has yet to be spent.”

Engaging the White House in high-profile bipartisan talks is certain to appeal to Biden's wish to unify the nation. 

“Mr. President, we recognize your calls for unity and want to work in good faith with your Administration to meet the health, economic, and societal challenges of the COVID crisis,” the senators said in a statement ahead of the meeting Monday. “We share many of your priorities, and our plan includes: increasing funding for the production and distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine; providing economic relief for Americans with the greatest need; extending enhanced federal unemployment benefits; providing nutrition assistance to help struggling families; providing additional assistance for our small businesses; getting our children safely back to school and ensuring they can stay open; and increasing resources for child care, which is critical to getting Americans back to work."

The cornerstone of the GOP plan is $160 billion for the health care response — vaccine distribution, a “massive expansion” of testing, protective gear, and funds for rural hospitals, according to a draft.

RELATED: Third stimulus check update: Who qualifies under Biden, GOP proposals

Other elements of the package are similar to Biden's plan but at far lesser amounts, with $20 billion to reopen schools compared to $170 billion. The Republicans offer $40 billion for Paycheck Protection Program business aid.

Under the GOP proposal, $1,000 direct payments would go to individuals earning up to $40,000 a year, or $80,000 for couples. The proposal would begin to phase out the benefit after that, with no payments for individuals earning more than $50,000, or $100,000 for couples. That’s less than Biden’s proposal of $1,400 direct payments at higher income levels.

Maine's Independent Sen. Angus King said the GOP plan is "insufficient to address the range of challenges we face."

“Maine people are crying out for relief – and have been for months," King said in a statement. "We don’t have any more time to waste; it’s time to come together, and pass legislation that rises to the occasion for our constituents and our country.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) told NEWS CENTER Maine she had concerns that Republicans would possibly drag out negotiations Tuesday and further delay critical aid.

Pingree also voiced her frustration with the lack of funds going to states and municipalities.

"There are big chunks they're leaving out," Pingree said. "If we can come to an agreement on a reasonable number to really build the economy back and support people—for rental assistance to distribute the vaccine, for our schools, for unemployment assistance—that is best. But if we can't, we have to move. We can't wait."

The Biden administration is hoping to get a relief package passed by March at the latest.  


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