Sen. John Thune speaks during a news conference in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, February 23.
Sen. John Thune speaks during a news conference in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, February 23. Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

Republican leaders in both chambers are maneuvering to keep all of their members in line against the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief plan, a move that would deny President Biden a bipartisan victory and one that could scuttle the bill in the Senate if any Democrat breaks ranks. 

But the move amounts to a political risk for Republicans with polls showing clear majorities of Americans supporting an emergency rescue package and with the economy still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.  

So Republicans now plan to begin an urgent public relations push to argue that the bill is bloated, poorly targeted and contains a hodge-podge of measures aimed at pleasing the Democratic base – a message that party leaders discussed with their members at a private GOP lunch on Tuesday and that they plan to echo in the days ahead, attendees say. 

“If the Democrats continue down the path they’re on and that is to not make any attempt to try and get Republican input or ideas, it makes it hard for any of our members, even those that might be inclined to do so to vote for it, to vote for anything,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune told CNN. “So, if it’s in its current contours, it’s hard to see very many, if any, Republicans being for it, especially given the way the Democrats have approached it.” 

At the lunch on Tuesday, GOP senators talked at length about the Democrats’ bill, with attendees emerging criticizing it in sharp terms. They discussed their strategy for putting Democrats in a difficult political spot when amendment votes happen next week in the Senate, while also putting forward some middle-of-the-road amendments that could attract some Democratic support, according to attendees. 

And afterward, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted the Democrats’ plan as “totally partisan,” while acknowledging that his party had work to do on its messaging in the face of public support for the Biden plan.  

“I’m sure everybody would love to get a check,” McConnell said, referring to the checks of up to $1,400 for certain individuals in the proposal. “But they haven’t yet learned about what else is in it and part of our job as the substantial minority, remember we’re in a 50-50 Senate here, is to make sure the American people fully understand what’s being proposed.”

Democrats, however, argue that they have a mandate after winning the White House and the Senate and are taking urgently needed action to deliver aid to an American public suffering under the devastating toll of the ongoing pandemic. They have insisted they are willing to work with Republicans but will not water down the plan — a lesson they say they learned from then-President Barack Obama’s first stimulus plan in 2009.  

CNN’s Olanma Mang, Ted Barrett and Lauren Fox contributed reporting to this post.