New federal COVID aid delayed after U.S. Senate Republicans insist on immigration debate
WASHINGTON — Members of Congress have departed their offices and hearing rooms on Capitol Hill for a two-week spring recess without passing additional funding to combat the coronavirus, amid a stalemate over immigration policy.
Despite reaching a bipartisan agreement Monday for $10 billion for testing, treatments and vaccines, much of it needed in states, the U.S. Senate was unable to begin floor debate due to a dispute about whether Republicans should be able to offer amendments, including one on Title 42.
The Trump-era program, run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allows federal officials to turn migrants away at the border, including people seeking asylum, on public health grounds.
The Biden administration announced last week that it would end the program on May 23, a decision that frustrated many in the GOP and even some moderate Democrats.
Several Senate Democrats are backing legislation that would bar Title 42 from being lifted until at least 60 days after an end to the declaration of a public health emergency — including Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, Jon Tester of Montana and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, as first reported by Axios.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said this week the only way Republicans will agree to officially begin debate on the coronavirus aid bill is if Democratic leaders agree to debate several amendments, including one on Title 42.
Democrats say he's playing politics with public health.
"We have an agreement on getting this package done, not on doing a bunch of sidebar issues," Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray said this week.
Senate leaders often agree to forgo amendment debate on major bills or those painstakingly negotiated to avoid making changes that could jeopardize the entire process.
An amendment vote to keep Title 42 in place wouldn't be a particularly thorny issue for Senate Democratic leaders if they were confident they could vote down the measure in the evenly divided Senate. But several moderate Democrats in the Senate have said they would likely support such a proposal.
Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt said this week that the CDC announcement of a sunset date for Title 42 "just as we were about to move forward on this $10 billion was not helpful."
"You'd assume somebody at the Biden White House would realize this would be a timing problem, if this came out just as we were getting ready to vote on this," Blunt said.
Blunt, the top Republican on the panel that funds the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said if negotiators can't reach an agreement on the path forward, the United States might have an issue quickly acquiring therapeutics.
"We don't have any particular ability to say, 'We know we're 10th on the list. We want to be first on the list.' So that would be the most immediate thing," Blunt said. "But that doesn't mean we're totally out of therapeutics."
One of the easiest ways out of the stalemate, he said, would be for the CDC to announce it plans to continue Title 42.
This is the second time Congress had deadlocked on COVID-19 aid since the Biden administration originally asked Congress for $22 billion in funding for domestic and global COVID-19 efforts.
Democratic and Republican negotiators settled on $15.6 billion in domestic and global funding last month, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi had to remove that provision from a much larger government funding package after several moderate Democrats objected to how it would have been paid for.
Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer later began talks on a fresh bill, reaching a tentative agreement last week and formally announcing the bill on Monday.
By Tuesday afternoon, McConnell had drawn a line in the sand on amendments and the process had come to a halt again.
With Congress gone for two weeks it's unlikely that lawmakers will make any progress towards a deal until the last week of April, when they're scheduled to return to Washington, D.C.
That will cause more headaches for federal officials as funding for several programs runs low.
"We are very concerned about the failure of Congress to continue to fund our COVID response," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday.
The lack of new funding, Psaki said, has caused the federal government to stop accepting new claims for a program that provided funding for health care facilities and pharmacies that test and treat the uninsured for COVID-19.
It has led to a drop-off in the number of monoclonal antibodies the federal government sends to the states. And the stalemate over new funding means that by the end of June, the country's "testing capacity will be at risk of collapsing."
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.