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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Biden's call for $1.9 trillion in virus aid looks a little more negotiable

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with a group of 10 Republican senators led by Sen. Susan Collins, right. Credit: Pool via Getty Images / Doug Mills

Chances appear stronger, at least in theory, for serious cross-partisan negotiations on a new COVID-19 stimulus plan. The outcome will depend in part on how much President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats, who now have the upper hand, see fit to yield on the massive $1.9 trillion price tag.

Democrats speak of sticking firmly to the number. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) cited the financial crisis 12 years ago when he said Congress was "too timid and constrained in its response." In 2017, Republicans in control of both houses steamrollered over Democratic reservations to enact a massive $1.5 trillion multiyear tax-cut package signed by then-President Donald Trump.

But the players and circumstances have changed. Although the $618 billion coronavirus-aid counteroffer touted by a group of 10 Senate Republicans, who met with Biden on Monday evening, remains a nonstarter, the public rhetoric seems less than barbed.

"Clearly," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday, Biden "thinks the package size needs to be closer to what he proposed than smaller."

That's very different from saying the final funding commitment cannot and must not come out to a dollar less than proposed.

New and possibly relevant information surfaced on Monday. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, in a 10-year outlook, forecast that the gross domestic product will return to its pre-pandemic size in the middle of this year, and that the labor force will do the same next year.

The CBO's relatively improved numbers presume COVID-19 vaccinations will proceed apace — but not that a new relief measure will be enacted. That's an important factor. The office's report states that forecasts improved "because the downturn was not as severe as expected and because the first stage of the recovery took place sooner and was stronger than expected."

If the nation is indeed better off than earlier expected, perhaps Democrats will see fit to bend on the size and extent of the latest rescue package — if only to avoid efforts by Republicans to filibuster and obstruct the legislation.

Republicans could cite the improved outlook to say no further stimulus is needed. Democrats could respond by citing other CBO findings — namely a downgrade in the longer-term forecast that suggests the economy still needs help and that the CBO's growth projection cites an unprecedented wave of pandemic-related government spending.

Democrats also might have incentives to make changes in the latest plan. Biden's package calls for direct payments of $1,400 to Americans. But some lawmakers want the checks more narrowly targeted to those most in need. There is evidence that a number of higher-income families saved their last stimulus checks.

The GOP counteroffer includes $1,000 direct payments instead of $1,400, none of the Democrats' desired aid to states and localities and no Biden-endorsed increase in the child tax credit.

Last year's stimulus packages enacted by Congress amounted to roughly $4 trillion. Just the fact that this proposal marks the latest effort would seem to suggest room for a deal, provided the partisan gridlock that set in before the Trump term can be broken.