Republicans have blocked a Democratic attempt to open a debate in the Senate on a $10 billion COVID-19 compromise, urging to entangle the bipartisan package with an election-year showdown over immigration restrictions that poses a politically uncomfortable fight for Democrats.
A day after Democratic and GOP negotiators reached an agreement on providing the money for treatments, vaccines and tests, a Democratic decision to push the measure past a procedural hurdle has failed 52 -47 Tuesday. All 50 Republicans opposed the move, leaving the Democrats 13 votes short of the 60 they needed to win.
Hours earlier, Republicans said they would withhold crucial support for the measure unless Democrats agree to vote on an amendment blocking President Joe Biden from lifting Trump-era restrictions on incoming migrants. in the USA. issue, Republicans see the focus on migrants as a fertile line of attack.
“I think there will have to be ‘an amendment preserving immigration restrictions’ in order to move the bill forward” bolstering federal pandemic efforts, the Senate Minority Leader told reporters, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
At least 10 GOP votes will be needed in the Senate 50-50 for the measure to reach the 60 votes it must have for approval. Republicans could withhold that support until Democrats allow a vote on an immigration amendment.
Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., want Congress to approve the pandemic bill before lawmakers leave in a few days for a two-week recess. Tuesday’s vote suggested it could be difficult.
“This is a potentially devastating vote for every American who was worried about the possibility of a new variant showing up within a few months,” Schumer said after the vote.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “Today’s vote in the Senate is a step backwards for our ability to respond to this virus.”
The new omicron variant, BA.2, is expected to trigger a further increase in COVID-19 cases in the United States. About 980,000 Americans and more than 6 million people worldwide have died from the disease.
The $10 billion pandemic package is far below the $22.5 billion originally sought by Biden. There is also $5 billion missing. Biden wanted to fight the pandemic overseas after the two sides could not agree on budget savings to pay him, as Republicans demanded.
At least half of the bill would fund research and production of therapies to treat COVID-19. The money would also be used to buy vaccines and tests and to research new variants.
The measure is funded by withdrawing unspent pandemic funds previously provided to protect aviation manufacturing jobs, shuttered entertainment venues and other programs.
Administration officials said the government has run out of money to fund COVID-19 testing and treatment for people without insurance, and lacks money for reminders, free treatment monoclonal antibodies and care for people with weak immune systems.
At the height of the pandemic in 2020, President Donald Trump imposed immigration restrictions allowing authorities to immediately deport asylum seekers and migrants on public health grounds. The ban is due to expire on May 23, triggering what by all accounts will be a massive increase in the number of people trying to cross the Mexican border into the United States.
That faces Democrats with messy choices ahead of the fall election, when they are expected to struggle to hold onto their House and Senate majorities.
Many party lawmakers and their liberal supporters want the United States to open its doors to more immigrants. But moderates and some Democrats facing close re-elections in November fear lifting restrictions and alienating centrist voters.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who faces competitive re-election this fall, declined to say whether she would support keeping the Trump-era ban, but said more needs to be done.
“I need a plan, we need a plan,” she said in a brief interview. “There is going to be a wave at the border. There should be a plan and I’ve been asking for it from the start.
Shortly before Tuesday’s vote, Schumer showed no taste for exposing his party to a contentious immigration vote.
“This is a bipartisan deal that does a lot of important good for the American people. Vaccines, tests, therapeutics,” he said. “He shouldn’t be held hostage to a foreign issue.”
Jeff Zients, head of the White House COVID-19 task force, expressed the same view.
“It shouldn’t be on any finance bill,” he said of immigration. “The decision should be made by the CDC. That’s where he’s been, and that’s where he belongs.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which initiated the decision two years ago, said earlier this month it would lift the ban next month. The restrictions, known as Title 42, have been harder to justify as pandemic restrictions have eased.
Trump administration officials threw in the curb as a way to prevent COVID-19 from spreading further in the United States. Democrats saw it as an excuse for Trump, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric was a hallmark of his presidency, to keep migrants out of the country.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-California, said she supported removing Trump’s curb and questioned the GOP’s motives for seeking to reinstate it.
“I find it very ironic that those who didn’t want to have vaccination mandates, for those who didn’t want to have masks in the classroom, that they’re suddenly very interested in protecting the public,” she said. declared.
But Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he would support a Senate COVID-19 relief bill if it included the GOP’s effort to maintain restrictions. Trump’s immigration.
“Why wouldn’t I? he said in a brief interview.
PA Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro and reporters Chris Megerian and Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.