Trump-era fight snags COVID deal
Congress appears poised to punt a $10 billion deal on coronavirus relief until after a looming two-week break, as multiple stumbling blocks are complicating quick passage of the agreement.
A bipartisan group of senators announced this week that they had clinched an agreement for long-sought coronavirus aid, with Democrats and the White House hoping to quickly deliver it to President Biden’s desk after weeks of negotiations.
Instead, lawmakers are locked in a standoff over a Trump-era immigration policy.
Republicans are demanding votes to include reinstating a policy from the Trump administration known as Title 42, which allows for the rapid expulsion of migrants at the border and blocks them from seeking asylum due to the risk of the virus.
“I don’t think there are probably 10 Republican votes at the moment for a process that doesn’t include at least an opportunity for a vote on Title 42,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.
“They would need consent to get on it this week, which I don’t think happens,” Thune added.
With Democrats separately focused on a time-consuming Supreme Court confirmation, it appears sorting through the coronavirus fight will be punted until at least late April, if not beyond, given the Title 42 battle.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday criticized Republicans, arguing the coronavirus relief bill shouldn’t be held “hostage.”
Pressed on whether he was willing to give Republicans amendment votes, he doubled down, saying it was a “bipartisan bill” that had been “negotiated in good faith.”
If the fight is resolved, the coronavirus deal could fairly quickly pass through the Senate. But there were little signs of that Tuesday, as Democratic senators said they had been told there would not be amendment votes and Republicans blocked the deal from advancing.
Some House Democrats are also disgruntled over $5 billion in global aid being dropped from the deal, given an inability to agree on ways to pay for it. Leadership is trying to assuage those concerns by promising to take up another package later this year.
That additional package could combine global COVID-19 funding with aid to Ukraine and to fight global hunger.
The prospects for any additional package are murky, given the weeks of fighting surrounding the current funding. Republicans have insisted on cutting unspent funds from previous relief bills, so it will be a major challenge to find additional offsets.
“I live in a town where ‘later on’ is the nice way of saying ‘no,’ ” said a skeptical Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
She said it would be a hard decision to vote against the current package. “We’re in the frustrating position of saying this may be all we can get,” she said.
Despite the headaches, top Democrats are pushing Congress to quickly pass the coronavirus funds. The White House warns that without new funding, it will not have enough money to purchase vaccines if all Americans need another booster dose in the fall. Testing capacity and the supply of treatments, like the highly effective Pfizer pill Paxlovid, will also fall off without new money.
“I will urge members, the Speaker will urge members to vote for that. I think they will vote for that, and then we will try to move forward with additional resources for international assistance,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
He added that he thought “one or two” House Democrats could ultimately vote against the Senate deal.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that Republicans would demand amendment votes to the coronavirus deal.
“Yeah, I think there will have to be an amendment on Title 42 in order to move the bill,” he said. “There are several other amendments that we’re going to want to offer, and so we’ll need to enter into some kind of agreement to process these amendments in order to go forward with the bill.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said Republicans had heard nothing from Schumer about whether he would let them get votes related to the coronavirus deal.
“We’ve heard nothing about amendments from Leader Schumer at all and until we do, we obviously can’t move forward. We need to know what the process is going to be,” he added.
Republicans are still finalizing how to draft their amendment on the Trump-era immigration policy so that it qualifies for a simple majority vote. But the general thrust would be to prevent the administration from rescinding Title 42.
Part of the problem for Democrats in giving Republicans a vote is that it would likely be added to the coronavirus bill, if — as top GOP senators expect — it would qualify as being a simple majority vote. Several Senate Democrats have criticized the administration’s decision.
The pushback over the agreement comes after Congress has already substantially pared back the administration’s initial $22.5 billion request.
In a play to try to reassure their own members, Democrats are vowing that they will bring up a package later this year that would link additional aid for Ukraine with global coronavirus funds.
The U.S. Agency for International Development said that without new global virus funding, it would not be able to expand its efforts to get vaccine doses to “nearly two dozen” additional countries it had planned to partner with.
Part of the problem in winning Republican votes for more funding is the idea that COVID-19 is largely in the past, said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).
“Most people in North Dakota think COVID is something that happened two years ago,” he said, adding: “There’s higher priorities.”
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