Biden and Yellen met with CEOs of JPMorgan, Walmart, Gap to talk stimulus

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President Joe Biden on Tuesday met with the chief executives of some of the country’s largest businesses in the Oval Office to discuss his $1.9 trillion Covid stimulus plan and the outlook for the American economy.

Among those who met with Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen were JPMorgan‘s Jamie Dimon, Walmart‘s Doug McMillon, Gap‘s Sonia Syngal, Lowe’s Marvin Ellison and Tom Donohue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The discussion began with a 15-minute speech from Biden, who stressed the need to combat virus and help economy at same time, a meeting attendee told CNBC’s Kayla Tausche.

The president also hammered home his focus on jobs and his commitment to work on a bipartisan basis, signaling he wasn’t just going to push a stimulus plan through that wasn’t supported.

Each CEO had a chance to speak.

Gap’s Syngal said that since retail is 60% to 70% women, 60% to 70% minority, she sees up close those proportionally being hurt most. Walmart’s McMillon talked about how wage growth is good for America, and how Walmart is working on that.

Lowe’s CEO Ellison also spoke about the importance of jobs with JPMorgan chief Dimon talked about good policy that brings about healthy economic growth.

Biden, shortly before the meeting, said that the group would talk about “the state of the economy, our recovery package. We’re going to talk a little bit — God willing — about infrastructure down the road and also about the minimum wage.”

US President Joe Biden sits alongside US Vice President Kamala Harris (2nd L) and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (2nd R) as he holds a meeting with business leaders, including Jamie Dimon (R), Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, about a Covid-19 relief bill in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, February 9, 2021.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Still, the star-studded cast of American industry is likely to press the White House on its plans for making more Covid-19 vaccines available for workers, the size, scope and importance of another round of stimulus checks, and how a $15 minimum wage would impact payrolls.

Yellen, a former chair of the Federal Reserve, has stressed the importance of acting quickly to flush the U.S. economy with more fiscal support even after the $900 billion bill Congress passed in December. Without it, the labor market recovery could take years instead of a complete rebound by next year, she said over the weekend.

Though the U.S. economy rebounded sharply in summer 2020, that progress has plateaued if not partially reversed this winter as the hospitality, travel and food service industries continue to struggle under the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The January 2021 jobs report, published Friday, showed that employers added only 49,000 jobs last month. The drop in the unemployment rate, which fell to 6.3% from 6.7%, came as more people gave up on their job searches.

It’s statistics like those which have hastened efforts by congressional Democrats to pass Biden’s American Rescue Plan using a budget tool known as reconciliation that would allow the party to muscle the big-ticket plan through Capitol Hill without support from the GOP.

Though the Biden administration for weeks voiced optimism that his plan could pass on a bipartisan basis with the 60 votes required without reconciliation, Republican pushback over the size of the bill appears to have ended prospects for an agreeable solution.

“The president – his first priority is getting relief to the American people,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. “Again, I don’t think the American people are particularly worried about how the direct relief gets into their hands. If [reconciliation] is the process it moves forward through, which seems likely at this point, the president would certainly support that.”

U.S. President Joe Biden receives an economic briefing with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, January 29, 2021.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

While the sit-down in the Oval Office provides a chance for the CEOs to learn more about the administration’s goals, it also grants the White House a chance to receive feedback directly from some of the nation’s top executives, who may favor some parts of Biden’s bill and dislike others.

Josh Bolten, president and CEO of the influential Business Roundtable, told CNBC last week that business leaders generally do not support conservative efforts to “whittle down” the size of the Biden plan.

“What our members are saying is they are supporting what the Biden administration is saying about the urgency of providing the rescue that’s needed. First get the pandemic under control and second, support the most vulnerable through tough economic times,” Bolten said Wednesday. “We are for whittling up on those elements of it.”

But Bolten stressed that the BRT — whose members include Dimon, McMillon and Syngal — is concerned about some components of the original plan that could reduce the odds of seeing legislation passed, including the boost to the minimum wage.

Three days after Bolten’s comments, Biden told CBS that it is unlikely the $15 federal minimum wage will “survive” into the next Covid-19 relief package, but pledged to pursue the campaign promise at a later date.

More recently, senior House Democrats on Monday evening proposed sending the $1,400 stimulus payments to individual Americans with up to $75,000 in annual income. That move rejected an earlier appeal to tailor the benefits to those with lower earnings, which conservative Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia supported.

Biden on Tuesday said that he supported the full benefit cutoff point at $75,000 in annual income for individual filers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, told CNN over the weekend that he supports a “strong cliff” for payments so that checks are not allocated to high-income households, but cautioned against cutting out too many families.

“But to say to a worker in Vermont or California or any place else, that if you’re making, you know, $52,000 a year, you are too rich to get this help, the full benefit, I think that that’s absurd,” he said.

Correction: Sixty votes are required to pass budgetary legislation in the Senate without reconciliation. An earlier version misstated the requirement.

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