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Politics live updates: McConnell supports Cheney; Republicans meet with Biden on COVID relief

Maureen Groppe, Nicholas Wu, Joey Garrison, John Fritze and Ledyard King, USA TODAY
·14 min read
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is throwing support to Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, amid calls for her to be stripped of her leadership role in Congress because she voted for former President Donald Trump’s impeachment.

"Liz Cheney is a leader with deep convictions and the courage to act on them," McConnell said in a statement to CNN. "She is an important leader in our party and in our nation. I am grateful for her service and look forward to continuing to work with her on the crucial issues facing our nation."

Republicans including Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, have called on her to step down or be removed as the GOP conference chair. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz traveled to Wyoming to rally against Cheney. Gaetz and other Republicans have previously called for her to step aside due to what they saw as insufficient support for the former president when she criticized him in the past.

Cheney, the third-ranking party leader, was one of 10 Republicans who broke ranks with their party in voting to impeach Trump in the House on the charge of inciting the insurrectionist mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“The president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of the attack,” Cheney said of her reason for voting to impeach. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”

House Democrats invoked the words of Cheney’s statement in their arguments for impeaching him.

The House impeached Trump on Jan. 13 and the Senate is expected to begin the process of a trial to acquit or convict him the week of Feb. 8.

Other Republicans have come to Cheney’s defense in recent days, including Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw, who said on Twitter, “@Liz_Cheney has a hell of a lot more backbone than most, & is a principled leader with a fierce intellect. She will continue to be a much needed leader in the conference, with my full support.”

Cheney said she was “not going anywhere” amid early calls for her to step down.

— Jeanine Santucci

Biden, Republican senators leave with no deal on COVID relief after two-hour meeting

President Joe Biden and 10 Republican senators left without a bipartisan deal Monday night after a two-hour meeting at the White House as the president stays committed to his full legislative proposal amid GOP efforts to scale it back.

The Oval Office meeting, requested Sunday by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and nine other senators, came after they introduced a $618 billion COVID-19 relief counterproposal that is less than one-third the size of Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

Addressing reporters outside the White House as snow fell lightly, Collins called it a “very productive, cordial two-hour meeting,” adding that she and other senators explained the components of their proposal and Biden explained his.

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

President Joe Biden meets with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and other Republicans to discuss a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, in Washington.
President Joe Biden meets with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and other Republicans to discuss a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, in Washington.

The White House has said the relief bill needs to remain intact to meet the full scope of the “dueling crises” of a pandemic and economic downtown. Among the subtractions in the Republican senators’ proposal, the bill would eliminate Biden’s plan for $350 million in direct relief to state and local governments.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the meeting a “a substantive and productive discussion” in a statement. But while there were "areas of agreement,” she the president reiterated to the senators that Congress must “respond boldly and urgently,” and pointed out the areas that the Republican proposal doesn’t address.

Collins, a moderate reelected in November, said the two sides agreed to “follow up and talk further at a staff level and among ourselves, and with the president and vice president” how to move forward on this issue.

“All of us are concerned about struggling families, teetering small businesses, an overwhelmed health care system, getting vaccines out and into people’s arms, and strengthening our economy and addressing the public health crisis that we face," Collins said. "I think it was an excellent meeting.”

The meeting marked the first official gathering of lawmakers that Biden – a former senator of 36 years – has hosted at the White House since becoming president.

Those in attendance were Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.; Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.; Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah; Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind. Sen. Michael Rounds, R-S.D., who also supports the counterproposal, called in to the meeting.

Support is mounting among Senate Democrats to pass Biden's proposal via budget reconciliation if they can't find 60 votes to override a filibuster. The latter would need support from 10 Republican senators, but no Republicans have publicly backed Biden’s proposal. The reconciliation process would need just a simple majority.

Although Biden campaigned on bipartisanship, the White House is leaving open reconciliation as an option, arguing they could still get some Republican votes if that’s the legislative route.

"He reiterated that while he is hopeful that the rescue plan can pass with bipartisan support, a reconciliation package is a path to achieve that end," Psaki said. She added that the bill was "carefully designed to meet the stakes of this moment, and any changes in it cannot leave the nation short of its pressing needs.

Making a brief appearance in front of reporters before the meeting, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris sat by a fireplace as the senators faced them. Biden and Collins exchanged pleasantries and thanked each other for agreeing to meet.

“I'm anxious for us to talk,” Biden said. “I feel like I'm back in the Senate.”

— Joey Garrison and Maureen Groppe

House Dems signal they'll move ahead quickly on COVID relief even as Biden talks with GOP

House Democratic leaders are moving forward with a plan to fast-track vaccine distribution efforts, direct payments to families and other COVID relief that could reach the floor by mid-February and pass “with or without Republican cooperation.”

Even as President Joe Biden was meeting with a group of 10 GOP senators on his $1.9 trillion proposal on pandemic relief, the Budget Committee issued an ambitious timeline spelling out how 12 House committees with oversight over various aspects of the package would need to finish their work by Feb. 16.

It would then be assembled and sent to the full House for passage under a process known as “reconciliation.” That would allow Senate Democrats in the evenly split chamber to pass the bill with a simple majority that includes Vice President Kamala Harris casting the 51st – and deciding – vote.

Using reconciliation “does not preclude reaching a bipartisan agreement on a relief package, but it does ensure that Congress can move forward and meet the country’s needs with or without Republican cooperation,” according to a statement from the Budget Committee. “Without the reconciliation directives in this resolution, the bold action outlined by the President could languish indefinitely in the Senate, putting the health and well-being of millions of American families at risk.”

The package includes direct payments of up $1,400 for millions of Americans, billions for vaccine distribution and testing, $130 billion to reopen schools and an increase in the federal hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $15.

— Ledyard King

Biden administration asks Supreme Court to hold off on asylum, wall cases

President Joe Biden’s administration asked the Supreme Court on Monday to hold off on two highly charged immigration-related cases left over from President Donald Trump’s tenure.

Acting Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar requested the nation’s highest court cancel oral arguments scheduled in coming weeks for a case involving funding for Trump’s wall along the U.S.-Mexico border as well as a case centered on the former president’s asylum policy.

Trump declared a national emergency in 2019, which allowed him to redirect billions of dollars in military funding to use on the wall. The Supreme Court has twice before allowed the wall project to continue despite lower court rulings that the administration lacked authority to spend the money.

Biden opposed the wall and signed an order in his first days in office ending its construction.

In October the court agreed to decide the fate of another Trump administration policy that forces migrants seeking asylum to remain in Mexico while their applications are pending. Biden's administration also moved in its first days to halt the controversial "Remain in Mexico" program for asylum seekers.

Biden has not yet nominated a solicitor general, but the filings Monday underscore the challenge the new administration may have in dealing with several cases pending at the Supreme Court in which Biden and Trump took diametrically opposing positions.

More: Trump's defeat may give Supreme Court a rest from personal, policy lawsuits

"It's a good start that the Biden administration is not rushing to defend Trump's illegal wall in court, but just hitting the brakes isn’t enough," said Dror Ladin, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents groups that sued the Trump administration. "It’s time for the Biden administration to step up for border communities, and commit to mitigating environmental damage and tearing down the wall."

— John Fritze

White House remains firm on 'big' COVID-19 relief bill before meeting with 10 Republicans

President Joe Biden’s meeting this evening with 10 Republican senators on COVID-19 relief will be an “exchange of ideas,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, but she made clear the president believes the package must remain big to meet the scope of the pandemic.

“What this meeting is not is a forum for the president to make or accept an offer,” Psaki said at a White House press briefing before Biden meets with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and nine Republican colleagues later in the afternoon.

The 10 Republican senators unveiled a $618 billion COVID-19 relief counterproposal that is less than one-third the size of Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Among the subtractions, the bill would eliminate Biden’s proposal for $350 million in direct relief to state and local governments.

“The risk is not that it is too big,” Psaki said of the legislation, reiterating a point Biden has made since introducing the bill last month. “The risk is that it is too small,” she said.

She said the package must remain “big enough” to reopen schools, help families who are financially struggling and speed up the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine nationwide. The president’s view is the “size of the package needs to be commensurate with the dueling crises,” Psaki said.

Psaki did not provide a deadline for the negotiations but called it “urgent” to pass the bill quickly. Enhanced unemployment benefits amid the pandemic end in March.

Meeting with the 10 Republicans is a reflection of Biden’s promise to engage with both parties, according to Psaki, who called their proposal “a good faith effort.”

Biden has made “unity” and bipartisanship central themes of his presidency. Yet the White House is open to passing the bill via budget reconciliation, which would require only a simple majority in the Senate and therefore not the 10 Republican votes necessary to get past a 60-vote threshold to override a filibuster.

Psaki said the president believes he can keep the bill the size he wants while still getting bipartisanship.

“There is historic evidence that it is possible to take a number of paths including through reconciliation -- if that’s the path that is pursued -- and for the vote to be bipartisan,” Psaki said. “But it’s important to him that he hears this group out on their concerns, on their ideas. He’s always open to making this package stronger.”

— Joey Garrison and Maureen Groppe

Ahead of meeting with Biden, GOP senators release outlines of COVID relief proposal

Hours before an Oval Office meeting with President Joe Biden, a group of 10 Republican senators unveiled the outline of their $618 billion COVID-19 relief proposal.

The plan’s estimated cost is about a third of the $1.9 trillion Biden has proposed, putting it on a collision course with progressive Democrats who have opposed a small package.

The group of senators, which includes key Republican moderates like Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, said they looked forward to meeting with Biden and noted their framework shared many of Biden’s priorities like increased funding for the COVID-19 vaccine, extended unemployment insurance benefits and nutrition assistance.

The proposal does not include any direct funding for state or local governments, a top Democratic priority.

The GOP package includes:

  • $1,000 stimulus checks, compared to $1,400 checks proposed in Biden’s plan

  • $160 billion in funding for vaccines, PPE for first responders, relief for hospitals and COVID testing

  • $300 per week in a federal boost to unemployment benefits running until June 30, compared to $400 a week through September in Biden’s plan

  • $50 billion in small business relief

  • $12 billion in nutrition aid

  • $4 billion in behavioral health funding

The group of senators and other Republicans have balked at the price tag for Biden’s package, arguing that another large package might not be needed after Congress passed a $900 billion package in December.

– Nicholas Wu

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, speaks during a hearing on COVID-19 on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Edelman/Pool via AP)
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, speaks during a hearing on COVID-19 on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Edelman/Pool via AP)

Biden to host GOP senators COVID relief talks

President Joe Biden will meet Monday with GOP senators to discuss their counter proposal for a COVID relief package.

During a call with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, on Sunday, Biden invited her and the group’s nine other members to join him at the White House "for a full exchange of views,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

In addition to Collins, the Republican group includes Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.; Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.; Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah; Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., Sen. Michael Rounds, R-S.D.; and Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind.

The senators asked for a meeting in a letter to Biden Sunday that emphasized possible areas of agreement.

The senators did not specify how close they are willing to get to the $1.9 trillion price tag on the president’s plan. Instead, they outlined their spending priorities which include $160 billion on vaccines, testing, treatment and personal protective equipment.

“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,” the senators wrote.

$15 minimum wage? More checks?: Resistance to key pieces could derail Biden's COVID-19 relief plan

COVID relief: Joe Biden introduces $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan with $1,400 stimulus checks

U.S. President Joe Biden, in a meeting Jan. 29. 2021 with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, stressed the need for a COVID-19 relief package.
U.S. President Joe Biden, in a meeting Jan. 29. 2021 with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, stressed the need for a COVID-19 relief package.

They backed new funding for mental health services, extending enhanced unemployment benefits and expanding food assistance. While the group also supports an additional round of direct payments to families, the letter implies the senators want a more targeted approach than in the current proposal.

Psaki reiterated the administration’s position that Congress must act quickly and should err on the side of providing too much, rather than too little, assistance.

She began her statement by noting Biden also spoke Sunday with the top Democratic leaders in Congress about quickly moving a plan.

Biden would prefer to get Republican support for legislation, but Democrats are preparing to push forward on their own, if necessary.

“With the virus posing a grave threat to the country, and economic conditions grim for so many, the need for action is urgent,” Psaki said, “and the scale of what must be done is large.”

– Maureen Groppe

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Politics live updates: Biden hosts GOP senators for COVID relief talks