Biden faces 'unity' test in meeting with GOP senators on COVID relief

The president has signaled openness to potentially moving forward without them.

With a group of 10 Republican senators officially offering a counterproposal to President Joe Biden's COVID-19 relief bill, the president on Monday was set to face a real test of his campaign promise to work across the aisle and bring unity back to a politically fractured Washington.

Biden met with a group led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, at the White House Monday afternoon. Collins' group, which includes both moderate and conservative Republicans, wrote a letter to Biden Sunday, proposing a counteroffer to his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan. Biden subsequently got in touch with Collins to invite the group to a face-to-face meeting in the Oval Office, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

While the White House press secretary on Monday insisted that the goal of the Oval Office gathering was not to cut a deal, the pressure on Biden was coming from both sides.

Following the two-hour meeting, the senators left the White House and Collins spoke briefly to reporters.

"I wouldn't say that we came together on a package tonight," Collins said. "But what we did agree to do is follow up and talk further at the staff level and amongst ourselves and with the president and vice president on how we can continue to work together on this very important issue."

"We are very appreciative that as his first official meeting in the Oval Office the president chose to spend so much time with us in a frank and very useful discussion," Collins added.

On ABC News Live Prime, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., called the meeting a success.

"There was common ground. As the president said, we're united in our concern for the American people," Cassidy told ABC News Live Prime Anchor Linsey Davis. "And the president said, as opposed to just us accepting his numbers or ours ... let's look at the information. Let's look at the data. We presented ours. He will have staff follow us tomorrow. So we won't be throwing dollars against the wall hoping that it sticks. Rather it will be looking at the true need and based on the need, picking a number. That seems a pretty good way to go."

The meeting was scheduled amid a push among Democrats on Capitol Hill to use an alternative, fast-track budgetary tool that would let them proceed without Republican support. Congressional Democratic leaders said last week that GOP proposals did not go far enough, and on Friday, Biden signaled openness to potentially moving forward without Republicans.

Monday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that they have filed a joint budget resolution -- the first step to potentially enacting a budget reconciliation bill.

The GOP group unveiled the details of their counterproposal on Monday morning. At $618 billion, the package is about one-third the price tag of Biden's $1.9 trillion starting offer. The GOP package matches a $160 billion provision for COVID-19 vaccination, testing and related health care costs. It also preserves a $12 billion fund for food stamps and nutrition assistance.

But because the Republican offer would cut down many of Biden's proposals -- it's an open question how far he can compromise without what he and Democrats say would be the mistake of "going too small."

The GOP senators' plan extends unemployment insurance at $300 per week rather than $400, and lowers direct payments to Americans from $1400 for those making up to $75,000 to $1000 for those making up to $40,000. The Republican package offers less funding for the continuation of the Paycheck Protection Program, and only provides $20 billion for schools, compared with the Biden administration's $170 billion proposal.

Cut from the GOP package entirely is a provision to lift the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, and funding for state and local governments.

"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 Republican group said in a statement.

Schumer said Sunday the proposal did not go far enough -- particularly since it omitted money for states and localities.

"They should negotiate with us, not make a take-it-or-leave-it offer," the Senate majority leader told the New York Daily News.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday that Biden was not abandoning bipartisanship. His meeting with the GOP senators, she said, amounted to "a conversation" and "exchange of ideas."

"What this meeting is not, is a forum for the president to make or accept an offer," Psaki said.

She added that Biden would tell the lawmakers that "that the risk is not that it is too big, this package, the risk is that it is too small."

Biden, a 36-year veteran of the Senate, has always prided himself on his deal-making ability. He expressed optimism throughout the presidential campaign and during his first week in office, about reaching a consensus with Republicans on a COVID-19 relief bill.

Ahead of his meeting with the Republican senators in the Oval Office on Monday he told them, “I’m anxious to -- I’m anxious for us to talk,” he said. “I feel like I’m back in the Senate, which I like the best of everything I did.”

But Friday, Biden for the first time acknowledged the reality that he might not be able to form a consensus.

"I support passing COVID-19 relief with support from Republicans if we can get it. But COVID relief has to pass. There's no ifs, ands or buts," Biden said, suggesting he might need to use a Senate budgetary procedure that would allow him to pass the bill with no Republican support.

Psaki said Monday that he still supported Democrats pursuing the procedure, known as "reconciliation," on a parallel track.

On Sunday, Biden's top economic adviser Brian Deese said administration officials are willing to consider a smaller package, especially in regards to the direct payments.

"We're open to that idea. We're open to ideas across the board. What I want to reinforce is that if we're going to look at ways of targeting we need to look at how this plan is targeted overall," Deese, the director of the White House's National Economic Council said Sunday in an interview with CNN.

But in an interview with ABC's "This Week," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said that he had not heard any palatable ideas from Republicans, even as Democrats like Biden were attempting to partner with them.

"If Republicans want to work with us, they have better ideas on how to address those crises, that's great," Sanders told co-anchor Martha Raddatz. "But to be honest with you, I have not yet heard that."

ABC News' Trish Turner and Allison Pecorin contributed to this report.

This report was featured in the Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, episode of "Start Here," ABC News' daily news podcast.

"Start Here" offers a straightforward look at the day's top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.