Portman Signals Flexibility on COVID Relief Package

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Following a meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris Monday evening, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman is signaling flexibility on a new COVID-19 relief package. 

The meeting followed the release of a $618 billion proposal by 10 Republican senators – including Portman – to counteroffer the $1.9 trillion package proposed by the Biden administration. 

“We thought it was important to provide an alternative, which we did, but also to let the president know that we are willing to negotiate on any and all items,” Portman said on a conference call Tuesday. “It’s not a take it or leave it proposition.”  

The GOP plan “focuses on what is needed right now,” he said. Its priorities include funding similar to what the Biden package has proposed for vaccine distribution and testing, which Portman called the most important part of any recovery package.

“Every economist will tell you our economy is tied to COVID-19. If we can get beyond our pandemic, our economy will recover and recover nicely, it has the funding to try to develop and get more vaccines out,” Portman said. 

The plan includes $1,000 checks for people earning less than $40,000, an additional $300 per week in unemployment benefits and $160 billion for vaccinations and COVID-19 testing. 

READ A LIST OF THE MAJOR DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE PROPOSALS

The proposal follows a $900 billion package passed in late December, most of which has not worked its way into the economy yet, Portman said. He also urged caution on further spending because of the growing federal debt and deficit. 

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki described the discussion with the Republican senators as “substantive and productive” in a statement issued Monday evening.  

“While there were areas of agreement, the president also reiterated his view that Congress must respond boldly and urgently, and noted many areas which the Republican senators’ proposal does not address,” she continued. “The president also made clear that the American Rescue Plan was carefully designed to meet the stakes of this moment, and any changes in it cannot leave the nation short of its pressing needs.”

The Republican plan does not include funds for state and local governments, though Portman said he supports such funding and offered concern that it was not included.

“It should be based upon need. Obviously not all of my Republican colleagues agree, so that’s not in our initial proposals” he said, adding that an item could be included as the package is finalized, he said. 

While Democrats argue that states need more money, data he was presented shows most are seeing higher revenues, Portmand said, noting however that Ohio’s is slightly down.

Portman referred to several economic predictions indicating an improving economy. Those included a projection by the Congressional Budget Office of 3.7% growth, with the economy returning to prepandemic levels by midyear without further stimulus actions. 

“The economy is poised to take off because of the pent-up demand that’s out there,” he said.  

The senator also lamented plans that Democrats might move forward on reconciliation, a legislative tool that would permit a budget-related bill to be passed without having to overcome a Senate filibuster.

Psaki said that while Biden is hopeful a relief plan could pass with bipartisan support, “a reconciliation package is a path to achieve that end.”

Portman argued that using the reconciliation process would be “a mistake” because it would make a recovery plan that much more difficult to achieve and would begin the administration on a “partisan foot” rather than one of cooperation. 

“My hope is that last night’s meeting starts a process where we can come up with a package and enough Republicans and enough Democrats can agree to it that we can get it done,” he said. 

Image via AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.