Democratic pressure grows on Schumer to break impasse on COVID relief
A growing number of Senate Democrats say they’re ready to take a tough vote on an amendment to keep the Title 42 health order in place at the U.S.-Mexico border if that’s what’s needed to move a stalled COVID-19 relief package.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has held the bill from the floor because Republicans are insisting on voting on a bipartisan amendment to overrule the Biden administration’s decision to lift Title 42, a pandemic order that has stopped thousands of immigrants from entering the country on asylum claims.
But a growing number of senior Democrats say they’re prepared to vote on the amendment in order to break the logjam on new money for therapeutics, vaccines and testing at a time when new coronavirus variants are causing a rise in infections and deaths around the country.
Without giving in to the Republicans’ demand for a vote on the hot-button issue of securing the border, COVID-19 relief could be stalled until after the November midterm elections.
The amendment is expected to fail, but it’s a tough vote for vulnerable Senate Democrats.
A vote to keep the Title 42 order in place could alienate their liberal base, but a vote to support Biden’s decision to lift it could give Republican opponents ammo to argue that they’re weak on border security.
Two vulnerable Democrats, Sens. Mark Kelly (Ariz.) and Maggie Hassan (N.H.), have co-sponsored the amendment, which would require the Department of Health and Human Services to formally notify Congress about the end of the COVID-19 emergency and provide a plan for handling an influx of immigrants before lifting Title 42 restrictions.
Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), whose seat is a top Republican target, says that Congress needs to do more on COVID-19 relief and he’s not afraid of taking a tough vote, though he won’t yet say how he would vote on the Title 42 amendment.
“I’m concerned about future variants and how bad this could get, and I do think we need to do more to make sure we’re prepared,” he said.
Asked if he would be willing to vote on the Title 42 amendment to get a coronavirus relief bill to President Biden’s desk, Warnock said: “I think we’ve got to find a way to get COVID relief passed.”
“I’m not avoiding any votes,” he said.
But when asked on how he would vote on the controversial amendment, he said: “We’ll see.”
Other Democrats are also growing tired over the stalemate over a $10 billion compromise relief package, which has dragged on since early April because of the dispute over Title 42.
“I’m going to make a general statement, which includes 42: I’m ready to vote. I think we should vote on issues. Forty-two is a legitimate issue that members should vote on. I’m ready to support the president on 42,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said he’s also prepared to vote against the bipartisan amendment to keep Title 42 in place, but he says it’s up to Schumer, who will make a decision after checking in with every member of his caucus.
“I’m prepared to vote and I’ve told Chuck I’m ready to vote. He’s talking to everybody in the caucus. It’s going to be his decision,” he said.
Schumer has kept the bill off the floor for weeks to avoid putting Democratic colleagues in the awkward spot of voting against the Biden administration’s move to lift the Title 42 order.
He accused Republicans of playing politics on COVID-19 relief.
“The bottom line is this is a bipartisan agreement that does a whole lot of good for the American people: vaccines, testing, therapeutics. It should not be held hostage for an extraneous issue,” he told reporters on April 5.
But Republicans have refused to back down from insisting on a vote on the Title 42 amendment, leaving COVID-19 relief in limbo as cases start to pick up because of a new variant.
At this point, it looks like the $10 billion relief package negotiated by Schumer and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) will wait until after the weeklong Memorial Day recess.
House Democratic leaders initially included $15 billion in COVID-19 relief in the omnibus spending package that moved in March but were forced to pull it at the last moment because of a revolt from progressive lawmakers, who objected to rescinding unspent state aid to help pay for it.
Amid the dispute over the Title 42 amendment, the Senate’s coronavirus relief package has lost all momentum.
“Not hearing anything,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations health subcommittee.
“It doesn’t appear there’s a chance before Memorial Day,” he added, noting the Biden administration plans to lift Title 42 restrictions on Monday.
There are also doubts whether the $10 billion deal crafted by Romney and Schumer can still pass muster in the Senate. An estimated $3 billion in offsets to pay for the bill have expired, and some Democrats want to add $5 billion in spending to pay for international vaccination efforts.
The border situation remains in flux ahead of the Biden administration’s plan to lift Title 42 restrictions on Monday because U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays, a Trump appointee, is expected to hand down a decision at any moment on whether to keep the policy in place.
He issued a temporary restraining order last month against lifting the order.
Meanwhile, the paralysis of the COVID-19 relief package is becoming a political problem for Democrats at a time when COVID-19 hospitalizations are up 27 percent nationwide, with 45 states reporting increases, according to Becker’s Hospital Review.
“I’ve said from the beginning, I’m fine voting on it,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said of the Title 42 amendment.
While her home-state colleague, Hassan, is a co-sponsor, Shaheen hasn’t decided how she’ll vote because she hasn’t yet reviewed the language.
But she says it’s critical to get the new COVID-19 relief package passed soon.
“I think it’s important because we’re seeing there’s a spike in cases,” she said, noting that she fell ill with COVID-19 a few weeks ago.
“As somebody who had COVID a month or so ago, it was really helpful to have the Paxlovid. It made a big difference for my husband and me,” she said. “Having those medicines, having additional funding to make sure the vaccines are there, having kids now eligible for vaccines and boosters — all of that is really important.”
“We’re not going to get back to normal until we finally put this pandemic behind us, and that means being able to live with it because we’ve been vaccinated,” she said.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) warned Thursday that the U.S. is falling behind other countries in ordering new vaccines.
“Countries around the world are already placing orders for the next generation of vaccines, which are better suited to the variants we face now and the variants we expect in the future,” he said on the floor. “The United States is not one of those countries, and without the necessary resources we will fall farther back in line and more Americans will die needlessly.”
“We will also run out of needed funds for testing and therapeutics before the next wave,” he warned.
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