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Biden Invites 10 GOP Senators To White House To Talk COVID-19 Relief

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Biden invited a group of Senate Republicans to the White House today to talk COVID relief. You'll remember, in its final days, the last Congress approved a COVID relief measure, but that money is running out quickly, and Biden promised to do more right away. He wants $1.9 trillion for people, businesses and schools. A group of Republican senators has sent him their counteroffer, and they want to spend much less. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is following this one. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Other than the Republicans want to spend less, what are the main differences here?

KEITH: Yeah, and it's a lot less. They're talking about $600 billion, which is about a third - less than a third of what Biden had been asking for. We're expecting more details today. But in the letter that the group sent to Biden yesterday, they did say that they agreed with him on funding more for vaccines, for COVID testing and PPE, about $160 billion. That's what his plan calls for as well. But beside that, it's much slimmed down. Their plan does have direct payments, but much smaller and more targeted, and also less money for schools reopening. And we don't know at all about the $350 billion that Biden's plan called for state and local aid. Unclear whether the Republicans are putting any toward that.

KING: The stakes there are that state and local governments are hurting because they've lost a lot of tax revenue. Now, at the end of the day, Tam, Democrats could still get this done with just Democrats, right?

KEITH: Yes, with just Democrats and a parliamentary procedure known as budget reconciliation, which would allow them to evade the filibuster and pass the package, potentially with just a simple majority. And they are prepared to begin the first steps of that process this week - working on a budget. Democrats are still haunted by the early days of the Obama presidency, when he was trying to get a big economic rescue package and Republicans didn't sign on, but they took a long time trying to reach a bipartisan agreement. And Democrats don't want to get burned again.

But Republicans have been critical of Biden, saying that he promised unity and bipartisanship in his campaign and his inaugural address. And they aren't seeing it, says Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who spoke on "Fox News Sunday."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")

BILL CASSIDY: So if you want unity, if you want bipartisanship, you ought to start with a group that's shown it's willing to work together for a common solution. They did not.

KEITH: And he is one of those 10 senators who sent the letter to Biden asking for an invite. Biden accepted. But they are far apart in terms of what they're talking about accomplishing.

KING: And we shouldn't assume that just because Democrats could get this done without Republicans that they necessarily would.

KEITH: That's right. And there are some challenges here. The reconciliation process isn't an easy one. It starts with something that in many years Congress simply doesn't do, which is pass a budget. And in this case, it has to be a budget that both Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin can agree to. Democrats have the narrowest majority possible in the Senate. They can't lose a single Democratic vote if they want to go it alone. And, you know, just an indication that they might face some challenges - Vice President Harris did a bunch of local TV interviews to try to sell this COVID package. And what states was she in? She was, virtually, in West Virginia and Arizona - states with Democratic senators who haven't signed on yet to Biden's $1.9 trillion plan.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.