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Odds dimming for quick passage of $10B virus aid package

Senate rejects procedural motion needed to begin debate on the bill

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., opposes the Biden administration's move on Title 42 border directive.
Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., opposes the Biden administration's move on Title 42 border directive. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The week is still young. But prospects for getting a bipartisan supplemental aid package for pandemic response efforts to President Joe Biden’s desk before a two-week recess seem increasingly remote.

Without a deal on amendments Republicans want to offer, the Senate on Tuesday rejected a procedural motion needed to begin debate on the bill, which would provide $10 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to buy more therapeutics, vaccines and testing supplies and prepare for future virus variants.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the lead GOP negotiator, said the underlying bill will have enough bipartisan support to pass if leaders can agree on an amendment process, but it’s an open question whether it will get done before the recess.

“You’d hate to have it delayed by two weeks, but that wouldn’t be the end of the world,” Romney said. “I hope.”

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., another negotiator, seemed even more pessimistic: “I don’t think it’ll get done this week,” he said.

In a 47-52 vote that was subject to a 60-vote threshold, the Senate did not agree to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to the legislative vehicle, a now irrelevant House-passed fiscal 2022 appropriations bill that the Senate plans to replace with the text of the COVID-19 aid bill.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., changed his vote to “no” at the last minute to preserve the option to call the vote up again.

[Senate reaches deal on $10 billion in COVID-19 spending]

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden was the only other Democrat to vote against the procedural motion, in objection to an offset that would repurpose $887 million from local and tribal assistance funds.

“I cannot support siphoning off essential resources for rural communities, tribes and small businesses in Oregon and nationwide just to pad drug companies’ profits,” Wyden said in a statement.

GOP amendments

All Republicans, even those backing the compromise aid package, voted against the motion because they want Democrats to allow amendment votes.

“We’ll need to enter into some kind of agreement to process these amendments in order to go forward with the bill,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters after Republicans discussed the measure in their conference lunch.

Especially crucial for getting Republican support, McConnell said, is allowing an amendment vote on still-unspecified language to continue the Title 42 public health directive, started under the Trump administration, that uses the pandemic as a rationale for expelling asylum-seeking migrants at the border.

The Biden administration announced last week it would stop Title 42 border expulsions by May 23, a move Department of Homeland Security officials say will likely cause a spike in illegal border crossings.

Schumer left Democrats’ party caucus lunch in no mood to give in to the GOP demands and scheduled the procedural vote shortly thereafter, seemingly as a way to test Republicans’ resolve.

“This is a bipartisan bill. It was negotiated in good faith,” he said. “It should not be held hostage to extraneous, unrelated issues.”

Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, who helped negotiate the package for Democrats, said he’s concerned an amendment process “will end up tanking it” entirely.

‘Highest Senate priority’

While Schumer wants to pass the supplemental this week, he has said confirming Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court is “the highest Senate priority by far.”

To get both done before the Senate departs for its scheduled two-week recess will require unanimous consent from all senators to speed up the normal procedural process on the supplemental.

McConnell and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., warned there won’t be consent for a time agreement or 10 Republican votes needed to overcome a filibuster without a vote on Title 42.

It’s not yet clear the exact language Republicans are seeking, but their goal is to block the administration from ending Title 42 prematurely. Thune said Republicans are kicking around a number of ideas and will be vetting amendment language with the Senate parliamentarian to ensure anything they offer would be germane and only need a simple majority to be adopted.

[Biden administration will rescind border expulsion policy]

Democratic leaders would want to avoid a simple-majority threshold, given that it would only take one of their members to help Republicans add Title 42 language to the package. That would create problems in the House, where most Democrats oppose continuing Title 42.

Some Senate Democrats — Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Jon Tester of Montana, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — have cautioned the administration about rescinding Title 42 without a long-term plan to secure the border. Kelly and Hassan are considered among the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection in November; Sinema, Tester and Manchin are not up this cycle.

Kelly said he was talking to Republican colleagues. “I’m open to getting to a point where this does not wind up being a complete mess here at the end of May,” he said.

Thune said Sen. James Lankford has offered language on Title 42 that he believes the parliamentarian would consider germane. Lankford said earlier Tuesday that Republicans have discussed “quite a few options” on how to address Title 42, which in addition to an amendment could include motions to instruct.

“You can’t in one sweep say the pandemic’s over at the border, but we’re still firing members of the military who are not getting a COVID shot [and] are still leaving other restrictions in place. We still have mask mandates on planes,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “So it’s nonsensical.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said one option for continuing Title 42 would be tying it to the fentanyl crisis at the border.

“Sen. Hagerty, who just came back from the border, points out there’s another public health emergency down there, which is fentanyl . . . funneled through there, taking the lives of about 100,000 Americans last year alone, yet there doesn’t seem to be much concern about it in the administration,” Cornyn said. “So that’s also in play.”

Thune said Republicans are seeking other amendments, most of which have to do with ensuring the administration doesn’t take too much “liberty” in spending the money for things Congress didn’t intend.

“Until we actually get into a discussion with the Democrats about a process, it’s hard to say what amendments, if any, might be included,” Thune said.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has talked about two amendments he wants votes on, according to Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. One would send the $10 billion in repurposed funds from the offsets to the Treasury instead of allowing it to be spent on additional aid. The other would direct insurance companies to cover emergency-use authorized vaccines or therapeutics, in an effort to lessen the government’s financial burden.

Staying together

Schumer has so far mostly managed to keep Senate Democrats together on the $10 billion package, despite widespread frustration that it excludes $5 billion in international aid that was part of an earlier agreement that fell apart over offsets.

The majority leader said he is planning for future Senate consideration of a bipartisan supplemental appropriations package that will include the international assistance for COVID-19, as well as other timely priorities like additional Ukraine aid and funding for global food security.

Even some of the most vocal proponents of international aid say they will vote for the $10 billion domestic package.

Mitt Romney has promised he’s going to bring 10 Republicans to the table for a domestic COVID protection plan, and we better take that deal while we can,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said.

Threats from House Democrats about voting against the Senate-negotiated supplemental over the exclusion of international aid also appeared to be dissipating.

Members left a Tuesday morning Democratic Caucus meeting saying their leadership urged passage of the $10 billion in domestic funding when the Senate sends it over, and most seemed ready to oblige.

“We have to get done what we can get done,” Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., said. “There is so much that the Senate fails to do that we think they should do.”

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said the chamber will take up the supplemental as soon as the Senate passes it and that he expects few, if any, Democrats will vote against it.

“We need to pass that before we leave,” the Maryland Democrat said. The House is currently scheduled to adjourn for the Easter and Passover recess Thursday, but Hoyer said that plan “is dependent upon what the Senate does.”

Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who previously didn’t think a COVID-19 supplemental could pass the House without international funding, said Tuesday he was undecided.

But he seemed open to supporting the domestic package given conversations already underway about a separate international aid package, which he said could be a stand-alone or ride on another vehicle like a bipartisan competitiveness package or filibuster-proof reconciliation package.

“We either spend a few billion dollars to fight this in Africa and Asia or we spend a few trillion dollars to fight it again in the United States.” Malinowski said. “That’s a no-brainer.”

Aidan Quigley, David Lerman, Suzanne Monyak and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report. 

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