The US Senate took a tentative step Tuesday towards pushing through a massive economic aid package proposed by President Joe Biden, but bipartisanship was absent.

Besides $1,400 stimulus checks, Biden's proposal would pay for programs to help schools safely reopen, accelerate Covid-19 testing and vaccine distribution, financially support small businesses, extend unemployment benefits through September and increase food aid for those in need.

The Senate voted 50 to 49 in a straight party-line decision to begin the budget reconciliation process (one Republican did not vote).

That procedural move opens the door for Democrats -- who hold a slim majority with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris -- to push through the Covid-19 rescue package on their own, avoiding the filibuster that requires 60 votes for most legislation.

Democratic Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said a "big bold package" is needed to avoid the long, drawn out recovery experienced in the aftermath of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

"We are not going to dilute, dither or delay, because the needs of the American people are just too great," he told reporters.

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Congress cannot 'dilute, dither or delay' President Joe Biden's massive economic rescue plan
US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Congress cannot 'dilute, dither or delay' President Joe Biden's massive economic rescue plan AFP / OLIVIER DOULIERY

A group of Republican senators met with the president on Monday in an effort to find common ground on the pandemic recovery effort, but the proposal they offered was only a third of Biden's $1.9 trillion total and omitted key elements.

Biden held a video meeting with Democratic legislators Tuesday and expressed willingness to agree to modifications, Schumer said, while noting there is "overwhelming support" for the president's American Rescue Plan.

But bipartisanship seems an elusive goal given the wide divisions, and Schumer said "we'd be mired in the Covid crisis for years" if the Senate went along with the Republicans' $600 billion proposal, which does not include help to state and local governments, and provides a smaller aid payment to individuals.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday that the size of the package was due to the size of the problem created by the pandemic.

"The size of the package was determined not for shock value but to address the dual crises that we're facing," she said.

Meanwhile, progressive Senator Bernie Sanders rejected Republican criticism of Democrats use of the budget process for the stimulus, saying the opposition party has used it repeatedly, including for tax cuts.

"If Republicans can use reconciliation to help the wealthy and the powerful and pass legislation strongly opposed by the American people, we can and must use reconciliation to help Americans recover from the worst economic and public health crisis in the modern history of our country," Sanders said in the Senate.