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Clash over immigration policy derails Senate COVID aid bill

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., listens during a news conference following the weekly Senate Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.
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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., listens during a news conference following the weekly Senate Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.

Quick passage of a bipartisan $10 billion COVID aid bill is unlikely now that Senate Republicans — with the support of some Democrats — are trying to use the legislation as a way to extend Trump-era immigration restrictions.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on Wednesday accused Republicans of using "poison pills" to derail a carefully crafted bipartisan compromise after they blocked a procedural motion the day before to begin debate on the funding bill.

"I hope Republicans will get serious about this," he said. "It should not be so difficult to do something so good and important for our country."

Republicans want Democrats to allow a vote on an amendment that would extend an order that made it easier to deport migrants at the border. Under Title 42, a World War II-era public health law, the government can take emergency action to expedite deportations if there are public health concerns, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the Trump administration invoked Title 42 in March 2020 as the pandemic began to upend American life, and the Biden administration kept the order in place despite opposition from progressive immigration activists. The policy has allowed for more than 1.7 million expulsions in the past two years, mostly under the Biden administration.

Last week, the CDC announced the order would be terminated on May 23, citing improved tools to fight the pandemic, including vaccines and drug therapies. The timing coincided with a bipartisan agreement in the Senate to provide $10 billion in funding for drugs, vaccines and tests as requested by the Biden administration.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said it is likely the COVID aid package will be delayed until after the upcoming two-week Easter recess to give party leaders time to try to come to terms on how to move the bill. Republicans are confident they have the votes to approve a Title 42 extension.

"We can win it," he said. "They've got a number of Democrats who are for it, but their leadership is adamantly opposed and, I would say, hostile to the idea."

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., speaks at a news conference following the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. During the news conference, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-K.Y., spoke on the negotiations for further COVID-19 relief legislation and border crossings at the southern border.
Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images
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Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., speaks at a news conference following the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. During the news conference, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-K.Y., spoke on the negotiations for further COVID-19 relief legislation and border crossings at the southern border.

Some Democrats question wisdom of terminating order

Several Senate Democrats — including Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire — have questioned the wisdom of terminating the Title 42 order.

"It shouldn't be in place forever, but at the same time we know that the number of migrants will dramatically increase and there's no plan on how to deal with that," Kelly told NPR.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki pushed back against some of their criticisms at a Wednesday briefing, saying that the administration still has time to carry out a plan before the order is terminated at the end of next month.

The Department of Homeland Security has "surged resources" to the border "and we will continue to take additional steps to implement and make clear that this is not the time to come," she said.

Psaki also said that Title 42 is a public health measure, not an immigration one, which the CDC has authority over.

Bipartisan support for continuing the order has created a logistical headache for the White House and Democratic leaders. If the Senate approves a Title 42 extension as part of the COVID aid package, then the legislation could be doomed in the House of Representatives, where Democrats largely support terminating the order. As a result, Congress may have to punt on the bill and try to resolve it when lawmakers return later this month.

Underlying support for the COVID aid remains strong, said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who helped craft the $10 billion deal.

"From what I can tell we have great support for the bill, it will pass, but there needs to be an opportunity for amendments," he said.

Politically, public confidence in Biden's handling of immigration is low as public polls consistently show a majority of Americans disapprove of his handling of the issue. It's providing Republicans an opportunity to try to force Democrats to go on the record in support of Biden's immigration policies, which could be a factor in this year's midterms. Senators like Kelly and Hassan are up for reelection this year.

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