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Covid deal hampered by GOP opposition to Biden immigration policy

Conflict over President Joe Biden’s immigration policy is complicating passage of a $10 billion coronavirus bill before a two-week congressional recess.

Just a day after Republican Sen. Mitt Romney and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced a deal on billions for therapeutics, vaccines and testing, GOP senators threw in a wrench that could mean Congress will break with nothing. Senate Republicans say they want a vote on an amendment that would keep in place the Title 42 border restrictions, which allows limits on immigration due to the pandemic. Without one, they say the bill can’t proceed.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday that “there’s going to have to be an amendment on Title 42 in order to move the bill.” Without agreement among all 100 senators, the Senate will be unable to take up and quickly move the bill this week.

“I don’t think there are probably 10 Republican votes at the moment for a process that doesn’t at least include an amendment vote on Title 42, perhaps among other amendments,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s top deputy. He said many Republicans don’t want to pass the bill anyway, so they’ll demand amendment votes as a price to move forward: “Our members are pretty dug in.”

The impasse could stall for weeks what Biden called much-needed coronavirus aid, unless senators can reach a deal before they plan to leave on Thursday or Friday. Without a breakthrough, the aid won’t be approved until late April or perhaps May. Republicans blocked a vote advance the bill on Tuesday, though Schumer can quickly bring it back up if there’s a deal on amendments.

Senate Democratic leadership is resistant to the idea of giving a vote on Title 42, and there’s also pent-up demand among the party to add more Covid aid money for restaurants. Additionally, Democratic leaders face the possibility that the immigration amendment could actually pass and make the bill impossible to turn into law.

A growing number of Democratic senators are expressing stern opposition to Biden’s lifting border-crossing restrictions, enough that Republicans could win an amendment vote, particularly if it’s at a simple majority. Still, it’s not clear those Democrats would vote to stick Title 42 language into the coronavirus bill, since adding that language would almost surely lead to a dead end in either the House or Biden’s desk.

Among the senators who are protesting the Biden administration’s decision are Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Kelly of Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Raphael Warnock of Georgia.

“It’s clear to me after my discussions with the White House and DHS, that there is not a plan in place on how to deal with the lifting of Title 42,” Kelly said in an interview. “I’m concerned with folks on the Southern border in my state and other states, also the health and safety of the migrants.”

Schumer on Tuesday didn’t explicitly decline to hold an amendment vote on Title 42, but he said the coronavirus relief package should “not be held hostage for an extraneous issue.” Schumer last week praised the Biden administration’s decision to end the policy, calling it “long overdue.”

“It’s the right thing to do because you can’t hide behind a pandemic that doesn’t really exist anymore,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a border-state Democrat who supports the Biden administration’s decision. Asked if it bothered him that Democrats are joining the GOP criticism, he said: “Yeah, it does. I can’t speak for them obviously, but the thing I continuously hear from my constituents is to stop acting like these border communities aren’t thriving.”

The latest snag comes after House Democrats last month stripped $15 billion in Covid aid out of a $1.5 trillion spending bill, with some members citing objections about the use of their home states’ money for pandemic relief. That’s left Democratic leadership searching for a bipartisan solution for weeks.

And Democrats already think they’ve conceded plenty to the Republicans after Monday’s bipartisan agreement left out global vaccine funding. So there’s not a ton of enthusiasm for giving Republicans their immigration vote.

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