A $10 billion compromise measure to bolster the government’s COVID-19 defenses has stalled in the Senate and seemed all but distracted for weeks, victims of a campaign-season struggle over the immigration scorch issue.
Blame was aplenty on Wednesday, but there was no sign the two parties were close to resolving their standoff over a bipartisan pandemic bill that President Joe Biden and leading Democrats hoped to have Congress approve this week. With Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., prioritizing confirming Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson by the end of the week — possibly Thursday — the COVID-19 bill appeared to be at least until Return of Congress sure to slip after a two-week hiatus.
A day earlier, the GOP blocked the Senate from even starting a debate on the bill, which would increase funding for COVID-19 treatments, vaccines and testing. Republicans asked Democrats to vote on an amendment that preserves immigration restrictions imposed by President Donald Trump, which the Biden administration is scheduled to end on May 23.
“Why did the Republicans say no? Because they wanted to paralyze the COVID funding legislation with poison pills that they knew would derail this bill,” Schumer said Wednesday.
Schumer and a team of GOP negotiators led by Utah Sen. Mitt Romney reached an agreement on the pandemic law Monday. Democrats say Republicans are backing away from that deal.
“The question we have is whether Republicans are acting in good faith to provide the resources we need to save American lives, or are they just playing politics,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki . “The virus isn’t waiting for Republicans in Congress to pull themselves together.”
While there would likely be at least the 10 GOP votes needed to get the pandemic bill through the 50-50 Senate, overall Republican support for it is tepid. And the GOP’s effort to refocus the fight on immigration — an issue polls show is hurting Biden — has clearly put Democrats on the defensive.
A vote to extend immigration restrictions would expose Democratic senators, particularly those facing close re-elections in November, to dangerous cracks. Liberal immigration advocates want Biden to erase the curbs, but that is expected to spark an explosion of migrants entering the US from Mexico, which could spark a backlash from voters.
“We can win it,” Senate GOP leader No. 2 John Thune of South Dakota said of a potential immigration vote. “You have a number of Democrats who are in favor. But their leadership is staunchly opposed, I would say hostile, to the idea of a vote.
As the pandemic reached its peak in 2020, Trump began having authorities immediately deport asylum seekers and other migrants, citing the threat to public health. The intensity of COVID-19 has since subsided in the US, although BA.2, a new Omicron variant, is spreading widely here.
Even GOP supporters of the pandemic bill say Democrats need to break the legislative roadblock.
“They are in the majority. And the administration says they need that money. And I actually agree with the administration,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who helped negotiate the package. “And the majority has to figure out how to do it.”
Among the Democrats favoring leaving immigration restrictions in place for now is Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who is facing re-election. He and several others cite federal officials need to upgrade staff and facilities to handle the expected influx of migrants.
“I haven’t seen a plan for how the administration will deal with what I think is a fairly foreseeable increase at the border,” he said in a brief interview on Wednesday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., declined to discuss what she would do if the Senate sent her chamber a pandemic measure that also extended Trump’s immigration restrictions.
“Is that even something the Senate would do?” she told a reporter. “If they send something, I’ll let you know what we would do with it.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., balked when asked why Democrats wouldn’t simply accept immigration restrictions as the price of winning the pandemic spending Biden says is needed.
“Their premise is whatever they put in there, take it,” Hoyer said. “Uh uh, we’re not going to play this game.”
That reflects a Democratic view that the Republican effort to force an immigration vote is all about setting a political trap.
“Trust me, this is one of the pillars of their re-election campaign, immigration,” said Senate No. 2 Democrat Richard Durbin of Illinois. “The numbers that are appearing on our border are a real challenge and I’m sure they’re going to make a problem out of it.”
Associated Press writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.