This week: Congress returns to border, spending fights
Congress is returning to Washington after a two-week break to a stalemated fight over coronavirus aid and deepening tensions over the administration’s decision to lift a Trump-era border policy.
The work period — which starts on Monday for the Senate and Tuesday for the House — will see lawmakers grappling with the stalled $10 billion in COVID-19 aid and a push to pass a second package that would link global assistance to another round of Ukraine aid.
At the same time, Democrats are dealing with their own divisions over Title 42 — a Trump-era policy that allows for the rapid expulsion of migrants at the border and blocks them from seeking asylum — that is colliding with election-year politics because Republicans view the border as a key line of attack.
And Democrats want to revive formal negotiations over a sweeping tax-and-spending plan that was meant to be the center of their legislative agenda, after a roughly $2 trillion version of “Build Back Better” (BBB) stalled out late last year.
Democrats are dealing with an intraparty headache that includes both policy differences and election-year politics stemming from the administration’s decision to repeal Title 42, effective May 23.
Those tensions, which were starting to spill over before the two-week break, have calcified since then with vulnerable Senate incumbents, traditional administration allies and even key committee chairman raising a red flag over the decision.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has been in touch with several lawmakers, many of whom say they’ve been raising the same concerns they are voicing publicly during private conversations.
He’ll testify this week before the House Judiciary Committee, House Appropriations Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee, where he’s likely to be grilled over both the administration’s decision and what the Department of Homeland Security’s plan is once the public health order is lifted.
Mayorkas told CBS News during an interview late last week that the department expected to see an increase in migrants along the border, but that it was prepared for it.
“The assertion that we do not have plans is an assertion that is not grounded in fact,” Mayorkas told CBS News. “We have been planning for months to address increases in migration; those that we already have experienced and those that we might experience upon an end to Title 42.”
But that’s been met with skepticism from some congressional Democrats, many of whom are up for reelection in November and facing criticism from Republicans seeking to tie them to the administration’s border policies.
Mayorkas’s appearance before the House committee isn’t expected to be his only congressional hearing this month.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.) noted that Mayorkas will come before his panel as part of the department’s budget request. He’s also eyeing a broader hearing tied to the border.
Despite the pushback, President Biden faced pressure for months from several Democrats and immigration advocates to lift the Trump-era policy, arguing that it was inhumane. Those same outside groups have also been frustrated both by the administration’s messaging and Democrats who have pushed back on lifting Title 42, arguing that they are echoing GOP talking points.
The border fight is also tied to the stalemated $10 billion in coronavirus relief.
A group of Senate Republicans and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) cut a deal before the break for the assistance, shrinking the scope of the package from $15.6 billion down to $10 billion by dropping roughly $5 billion in global assistance from the package.
But the agreement quickly hit a wall in the Senate as Republicans demanded a vote on an amendment to the bill related to Title 42. The proposal from Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) would effectively prohibit the administration from lifting the Trump-era policy if the broader public health emergency remains in place.
The demand put Democrats in a jam. If they don’t give Republicans a vote, the coronavirus bill is effectively stuck with Republicans making it clear they are willing to walk away from the funding. Democrats have warned if coronavirus cases rise significantly, Republicans could find themselves on the wrong side of the fight.
And if Democrats gave Republicans a Title 42 vote, something they’ve been adamant that they won’t do, there’s enough Democratic support that the Lankford proposal would likely be added. Republicans believe that the amendment would qualify for a simple majority vote, meaning that Republicans would only need to peel off one Democratic senator to get it added to the coronavirus bill. That would likely sink the bill in the Democratic-controlled, and more progressive, House.
Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), Mark Kelly (Ariz.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Jon Tester (Mont.) and Maggie Hassan (N.H.) are backing the Lankford proposal. Other Democrats, including Sens. Raphael Warnock (Ga.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), have distanced themselves from the administration’s decision but haven’t yet backed Lankford’s legislation.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will face his conference for the first time this week since newly released audio revealed the House GOP leader told other lawmakers that he would advise that then-President Trump to resign in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, when a mob of Trump’s supporters breached the building.
McCarthy initially falsely denied New York Times reporting, based on the upcoming book “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America’s Future,” that he had expressed wanting to push Trump to resign during a House GOP leadership team phone call on Jan. 10. Recordings of McCarthy’s remarks were then released, backing up the reporting.
The release of the recordings of McCarthy distancing himself from Trump in the immediate wake of the Jan. 6 attack comes as the California Republican is trying to win back the House majority, and aiming to claim the Speaker’s gavel, if Republicans flip the chamber in November.
Trump maintains a tight grip on the House GOP caucus, likely giving him the ability to sink McCarthy’s hopes of being Speaker if he came out hard against him. But Trump, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, said that he “didn’t like the call” that McCarthy made to the GOP conference, but that their relationship is still on good terms.
“I think it’s all a big compliment, frankly,” Trump said. “They realized they were wrong and supported me.”
McCarthy also distanced himself from his January 2021 comments, telling reporters that he “never asked President Trump to resign.” The California Republican also claimed while speaking to reporters that his call with House leadership on Jan. 10 was “overblown” adding that Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) had asked him about the 25th Amendment and needed “to explain what else would happen.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken will testify before Congress this week, after he and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv Sunday, the highest-ranking visit from U.S. officials since the start of Russia’s invasion.
Blinken is set to testify before several committees, including the Senate Appropriations Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the department’s fiscal 2023 budget request.
The trip comes after Biden last week announced an additional $800 million in military aid to Ukraine.
Blinken is likely to be pushed for details on what assistance has been sent, plans for additional aid and the administration’s broader policy toward Russia’s invasion.
His appearance comes as Schumer has also indicated that he intends to bring up additional assistance to Ukraine this week, tied to global coronavirus aid.
“It is my intention for the Senate to consider a bipartisan international appropriations package that could include additional aid for Ukraine as well as funding to address COVID-19 and food insecurity globally,” Schumer said earlier this month.
On the Senate floor, senators will focus on confirming some of Biden’s nominees to the Federal Reserve.
Before the Senate left for the two-week break, Schumer teed up votes on Lael Brainard’s nomination to be vice chairman and Lisa DeNell Cook’s nomination to be a member of the Federal Reserve’s board of governors.
Schumer also teed up a vote on Alvaro Bedoya’s nomination to be federal trade commissioner.
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