WASHINGTON – A compromise $10 billion measure buttressing the government’s COVID-19 defenses has stalled in the Senate and seemed all but certainly sidetracked for weeks, victim of a campaign-season fight over the incendiary issue of immigration.
There was abundant finger-pointing Wednesday but no signs the two parties were near resolving their stalemate over a bipartisan pandemic bill that President Joe Biden and top Democrats wanted Congress to approve this week. With Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., prioritizing the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson by week's end — quite possibly Thursday — the COVID-19 bill seemed sure to slip at least until Congress returns after a two-week recess.
A day earlier, the GOP blocked the Senate from even beginning debate on the bill, which would increase funding for COVID-19 treatments, vaccines and testing. Republicans were demanding that Democrats allow a vote on an amendment preserving immigration curbs imposed by President Donald Trump that the Biden administration is slated to end on May 23.
“Why did Republicans say no? Because they wanted to cripple 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 struck a deal Monday on the pandemic bill. Democrats say Republicans are walking away from that agreement.
“The question we have is whether Republicans are acting in good faith to provide the resources we need to save American lives, or if they’re just playing politics," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “The virus is not waiting for Republicans in Congress to get their act together.”
While there would likely be at least the 10 GOP votes needed to push the pandemic bill through the 50-50 Senate, overall Republican support for it is tepid. And the GOP’s effort to refocus the fight to immigration — an issue that polls show hurts Biden — has clearly put Democrats on the defensive.
A vote on extending the immigration restrictions would expose Democratic senators, especially those facing tight reelections in November, to dangerous fissures. Liberal immigration advocates want Biden to erase the curbs, but doing that is expected to prompt an explosion of migrants entering the U.S. from Mexico that could trigger a voter backlash.
“We can win it," No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Thune of South Dakota said about a potential immigration vote. “They've got a number of Democrats who are for it. But their leadership is adamantly opposed, I would say hostile to the idea” of a vote.
When the pandemic was full-blown in 2020, Trump began letting authorities immediately expel asylum seekers and other migrants, citing the threat to public health. COVID-19's intensity has since waned in the U.S., though BA.2, a new omicron variant, is beginning to spread widely here.
Even GOP supporters of the pandemic bill say Democrats must resolve the legislative roadblock.
“They’re in the majority. And the administration says they need this 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 get this done.”
Among Democrats who favor retaining the immigration restrictions for now is Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who is facing reelection. He and several others cite a need for federal officials to gear up staffing and facilities to handle the expected influx of migrants.
“I have not seen a plan for how the administration will deal with what I think is a pretty predictable surge on the border," he said Wednesday in a brief interview.
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 strictures.
“Is that even something that the Senate would do?" she told a reporter. “When they send something, I'll let you know what we would do with it."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., bristled when asked why Democrats wouldn't simply accept the immigration restrictions as the price for winning the pandemic spending Biden says is needed.
“Your premise is whatever they put in there, take,” Hoyer said. “Uh uh, we’re not going to play that 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 reelection campaign, immigration," said No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois. “The numbers appearing at our border are a real challenge, and I’m sure they’re going to make an issue of it.”
Associated Press writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.