WASHINGTON, Jan 26 (Reuters) - Democrats in the U.S. Senate will act alone to approve a fresh round of coronavirus stimulus if Republicans do not support the measure, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Tuesday, the morning after securing a deal to exert his newly won leadership.
President Joe Biden has made addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed over 420,000 Americans, is currently infecting more than 173,000 people daily and has left millions out of work, a major focus of his first week in office.
Biden is calling on Congress to approve US$1.9 trillion in spending, on top of the roughly $4 trillion authorized over the past year to address the heavy human and economic toll.
"We want to work with our Republican colleagues to advance this legislation in a bipartisan way," Schumer said on the Senate floor. "But the work must move forward, preferably with our Republican colleagues, but without them if we must."
Schumer spoke the morning after top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell, the chamber's previous majority leader, agreed to dropped his blockade of a deal for a power-sharing agreement in the Senate, where each party controls 50 seats.
The Democrats have control of the chamber because Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote.
Later on Tuesday, Schumer told reporters that an initial vote on passing coronavirus relief through a process known as budget reconciliation, which requires a simple majority vote rather than the 60 votes usually needed to pass legislation in the chamber, could take place as soon as next week.
Senate Republicans bemoaned that possibility.
"I think that would be not just a big mistake at this stage at the start of this administration, but irresponsible given what's happened with the COVID-19 package. We're willing to work with them and we said that on Sunday," Republican Senator Rob Portman told reporters.
Biden has called for unity and bipartisan support of his plan, but Republicans have baulked at the high price tag and senators of both parties have said they want the package to be more targeted.
The White House has scheduled a call with members of the bipartisan group of lawmakers known as the Problem Solvers Caucus on Tuesday, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.
The White House is expected to detail how much money remains in the coffers after previous stimulus packages, in a follow-up to a weekend meeting.
Meanwhile, congressional Democrats are introducing on Tuesday a bill that would increase the minimum wage to US$15 an hour, one of the components of Biden's coronavirus package, raising the possibility that lawmakers could take a more piecemeal approach to the legislation.
Congressional Republicans have traditionally opposed such measures. In 2019, only three Republicans voted for a similar minimum wage hike in the House of Representatives. The federal minimum wage has not been changed since 2009, when it became US$7.25 an hour.