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WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives will move next week on President Joe Biden's plan to deliver a fresh infusion of COVID-19 relief to Americans and businesses reeling from the pandemic, top Democrats said on Thursday.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said his narrowly divided chamber would begin work on a "robust" coronavirus package as early as next week, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi predicted that Congress would complete a key preliminary step before the end of next week.
The move reflects Democrats' desire to use their newfound Senate control to help Biden move quickly on his top policy priority before the Senate turns to the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump later next month.
Biden has made ramping up the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed nearly 430,000 people in the United States and thrown millions out of work, a major focus of his early days in office. But Republicans and some Democrats have balked at the $1.9 trillion cost of his proposal, which is on top of $4 trillion in aid approved by Congress last year.
Lawmakers said bipartisan talks on the plan are continuing.
"The Senate, as early as next week, will begin the process of considering a very strong COVID relief bill," Schumer said on the floor of the chamber.
"We need recovery and rescue quickly. Everywhere you look alarm bells are ringing," he added, saying Democrats would proceed even if Republicans are not on board.
Schumer did not offer any hard details about the bill that he intends to advance.
Pelosi told a news conference that the House would vote on a budget resolution required for a parliamentary procedure called reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to pass much of Biden's proposal by a simple majority in the Senate, even without Republican support. Vice President Kamala Harris wields the 50-50 Senate's tie-breaking vote.
"By the end of (next) week, we'll be finished with the budget resolution, which will be about reconciliation, if needed," Pelosi said.
Democrats say they hope to find enough Republican support to meet the Senate's 60-vote threshold for passage. But they are getting ready to use reconciliation in case bipartisanship falls short.
Senate Republicans said reconciliation would belie the unifying message that Biden articulated during his inaugural address last week.
"That's going to send a signal to America and to Republicans throughout Congress, that this president's message of unity was rhetoric as opposed to substance," said Sen. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki rejected that argument, saying that Republicans had the option of voting for or against a reconciliation bill.
No piecemeal approach
Senate misgivings over the size of Biden's proposal stirred speculation that the White House could use a two-pronged strategy, starting with a bill small enough to attract Republican support that would then be followed by a larger reconciliation bill.
But senior White House officials on Thursday shot down that idea.
"The needs of the American people aren't partial; we can't do this piecemeal," White House economic adviser Brian Deese, who has been involved in talks with a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the Senate and House, said on Twitter.
Deese later spoke about the COVID-19 relief effort during a Senate Democratic policy lunch.
The needs of the American people aren't partial; we can't do this piecemeal.
–Brian Deese, White House economic adviser
"We have to do it all together. It all fits together," Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal told reporters after the lunch. "That's the general feeling in the caucus."
Biden and his allies in Congress are also under pressure from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who chairs the left-leaning Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Politico in an online interview that $1.9 trillion should be the floor for COVID-19 relief spending, not a ceiling.
Her caucus, which represents more than 90 of the House's 221 Democrats, wants the package to include a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour, a path to citizenship for essential workers who are immigrants and auto-enrollment in public health insurance plans for the uninsured.
"We should think of this in terms of the needs of people, not in terms of the dollar amounts," Jayapal said.
She and other Democratic lawmakers including Rep. Ilhan Omar have called for recurring payments to U.S. households instead of the one-time $1,400 check the Biden administration has included in its proposal.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Makini Brice and Trevor Hunnicutt; Writing by David Morgan; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Mark Heinrich and Andrea Ricci)