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Schumer says Democrats must pass COVID-19 aid with or without GOP

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that Democrats are preparing to push ahead quickly on President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package even if it means using procedural tools to pass the legislation on their own, leaving Republicans behind.

Schumer told Senate Democrats to be ready as soon as next week to consider a budget resolution that would lay the groundwork for swift passage of the sweeping virus aid and economic recovery act. It could be done with a simple 51-vote majority in the Senate, rather than the usual 60-vote threshold that is needed.

“The work must move forward, preferably with our Republican colleagues, but without them if we must,” Schumer said after a private meeting of Democratic senators. “Time is of the essence to address this crisis. We’re keeping all options open on the table.”

Unwilling to wait for Republicans who say the price tag of Biden’s COVID-19 relief is too high and the priorities too far-reaching, Democrats are flexing their newfound power as they take control of the Senate alongside the House and White House. It is the first time the party has held unified control in Washington in a decade.

The fast-moving events from the new majority on Capitol Hill come as the White House has been meeting privately with groups of Republican and Democratic lawmakers in hopes of striking a bipartisan agreement over COVID-19 aid, a first test of Biden’s “unity” agenda.

WATCH: Biden administration begins push for action on COVID-19 relief

The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus of more than 50 House lawmakers are set to meet virtually Tuesday with top administration officials on the virus aid and economic recovery package.

The next steps remain highly fluid. The dozen senators emerging from a lengthy private meeting with the White House on Sunday evening said they would talk on their own to try to craft a more targeted bill.

As proposed, Biden’s package would provide $1,400 in direct payments to Americans and billions of dollars for vaccine distribution and other elements to shore up the economy.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters earlier Tuesday that Biden is still looking to negotiate on an aid package, while putting a priority on acting as swiftly as possible before aid lapses in March.

“He laid out his big package, his big vision of what it should look like, and people are giving their feedback,” Psaki said. “He’s happy to have those discussions and fully expects it’s not going to look exactly the same on the other end.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who led a bipartisan effort for the last $900 billion relief package, is expected to work again with the senators on crafting an alternative package that she has said would be more focused on money for vaccine distribution and tailored economic assistance to the neediest Americans.

Congress has approved some $4 trillion in emergency aid since the start of the coronavirus pandemic last year, a stunning outlay and the largest rescue package in the nation’s history.

Senators from both parties who joined the White House call over the weekend agreed the priority needs to be standing up the country’s faltering vaccine distribution system.

With the death toll climbing, and new strains of the virus threatening more trouble ahead, ensuring vaccinations appears to be crucial to stemming the COVID-19 crisis.

Several senators from both parties also said they want the $1,400 direct checks to be more targeted to those in need. They also want an accounting of what remains from previously approved aid bills.