Congress skips town without passing Covid relief

Lawmakers left Washington Thursday for a two-week recess without approving the massive $10 billion deal, the second time Congress has failed to act on what the president has made clear is essential funding.

“Congress must act now,” Biden pleaded last week. “The consequences of inaction are serious.”

This time, the gridlock came as Republicans demanded a vote on an immigration amendment to restore Title 42, a pandemic-era rule that allowed immigrants to be immediately returned to their home countries citing a health emergency. public. Democrats demurred, criticizing Republicans for what they called a last-minute request in a deal they believed was final.

But the fight over immigration is just the latest in a series of stumbles Congress has had in trying to respond to an unpredictable and ever-changing virus.

The Biden administration announced last week that it planned to roll back Title 42 in May, but the decision has been criticized by both Republicans and Democrats. Still, Democratic leaders say voting on an amendment now would violate the deal they thought they had struck with Republicans. And while several Democrats have said they would support stand-alone legislation reinstating Title 42 as long as there is a public health emergency elsewhere in government, even members who have opposed Biden’s action say they don’t want to have the debate as part of the Covid funding.

“We had a bipartisan deal and unfortunately because of an outside issue, we’re not going to be able to get the 10 Republican votes we need to pass it,” said Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

This is the second time a tentative deal on a Covid relief package has been thwarted in just over a month. In March, a $15.6 billion package that had been negotiated by House and Senate leaders collapsed when a group of House Democrats rebelled against it over the way it was paid for. Just a few weeks later, another hard-fought deal was negotiated, but it was smaller, totaling just $10 billion instead of nearly $16 billion.

“When they blew up that deal, you’re trying to do this as a stand-alone bill, and it becomes a lot more complicated,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the GOP whip. “There’s a lot of issues around this right now… We’ll see where it goes from here.”

The deadlock comes as covid remains a reality on Capitol Hill. This week alone, nearly a dozen members, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have tested positive for the virus. The $10 billion package would largely go towards preparing the US for future outbreaks and would make investments in testing, treatment and therapies.

It’s still possible that senators could find a way forward after the Easter break, but it’s not clear that the 10 Republican votes will materialize without a vote on the immigration amendment. And Republican senators point out that the longer the bill lasts, the harder it will be to cross the finish line.

“Ten billion dollars is a lot of money,” said Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio. “I think it’s reasonable to say, ‘We’re going to have a handful of amendments from each side.’ “

Asked if he feared the bill might never pass now that lawmakers have gone into recess, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said, “It’s never a long time.”

“I think we have to deal with it, and I think we can find a way to deal with it, but the Title 42 announcement was a real problem,” he said.

Blunt said the timing of the administration’s decision to reverse Title 42, which essentially indicated there was no longer a public health crisis at the border, had jeopardized the bill’s fate.

“There could have been an amendment issue, but not an amendment that the Democrats considered kryptonite,” he said.

Democrats insist that eventually the Covid relief will pass. It may take some time to work out the details.

“It will pass,” said Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia. “We’re playing a bit of Russian roulette here. What if the virus spikes? I don’t know what the current inventory of supplies is.”

CNN’s Manu Raju and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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