WASHINGTON — A $10 billion compromise measure bolstering the government’s defenses against COVID-19 stalled in the Senate on Wednesday and seemed almost certainly sidetracked for weeks, the victim of a campaign season fight over the issue arsonist of immigration.
There was plenty of finger-pointing, but no sign that the two parties were close to resolving their standoff 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 confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson by the end of the week — most likely Thursday — the COVID- 19 seemed sure to slide at least until Congress returned from a two-week hiatus.
A day earlier, the GOP blocked the Senate from even starting 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 restrictions imposed by President Donald Trump and that the Biden administration should end on May 23.
“Why did the Republicans say no? Because they wanted to cripple the 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 reached an agreement Monday on the pandemic bill. Democrats say Republicans are walking away from this deal.
“The question we ask ourselves is whether Republicans are acting in good faith to provide the resources we need to save American lives, or are they just playing politics,” the press secretary said. White House, Jen Psaki. “The virus isn’t waiting for Republicans in Congress to get their act together.”
Although there are likely at least the 10 GOP votes needed to pass the pandemic bill in the Senate 50-50, overall Republican support is lukewarm. And the GOP’s efforts to refocus the fight against immigration — an issue that polls show is hurting Biden — have clearly put Democrats on the defensive.
A vote on expanding immigration restrictions would expose Democratic senators, especially those facing close re-elections in November, to dangerous cracks. Liberal immigration advocates want Biden to scrap the restrictions, but that is expected to spark an explosion of migrants entering the United States from Mexico, which could trigger a backlash from voters.
“We can win it,” Senate GOP Leader No. 2 John Thune of South Dakota said of a possible vote on immigration. “They have a number of Democrats who are for it. But their leadership is fiercely opposed, I would say hostile to the idea” of a vote.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Trump began letting authorities immediately deport asylum seekers and other migrants, citing the threat to public health. The intensity of COVID-19 has since diminished in the United States, although BA.2, a new variant of omicron, is beginning to spread widely here.
Even GOP supporters of the pandemic bill say Democrats need to solve the legislative roadblock.
“They are the majority. And the administration says it needs that money. And I actually agree with the administration,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who helped negotiate the package. “And the majority must figure out how to achieve that.”
Among the Democrats who favor keeping immigration restrictions for now is Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who is facing re-election. He and several others cite the need for federal officials to equip themselves with staff and facilities to handle the expected influx of migrants.
“I haven’t seen a plan for how the administration is going to handle what I think will be a fairly predictable push at the border,” he said in a brief interview Wednesday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, declined to discuss what she would do if the Senate sent a pandemic measure to her chamber that also expanded Trump’s immigration restrictions.
“Is that even something the Senate would do?” she told a reporter. “When they send something, I’ll let you know what we’ll do with it.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., bristled when asked why Democrats won’t just accept immigration restrictions as a prize to win the pandemic spending that Biden said to be necessary.
“Your premise is whatever they put in there, take it,” Hoyer said. “Uh uh, we’re not going to play that game.”
This reflects a Democratic view that the Republican effort to force a vote on immigration is to set a political trap.
“Believe me, it’s one of the pillars of their re-election campaign, immigration,” said Senate Democratic Leader No. 2 Richard Durbin of Illinois. “The numbers appearing at our border are a real challenge, and I’m sure they will make it a problem.”
Associated Press writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.