WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's immediate priorities of securing $33 billion in aid to Ukraine and $10 billion in funding for Covid relief aren't passing Congress in a hurry.
Both are jammed up over an unrelated dispute about immigration, with Senate Republicans filibustering the bipartisan Covid relief bill unless the Democratic-controlled chamber votes on an amendment to reimpose the Trump-era Title 42 rule. The rule allow U.S. officials to turn away asylum-seekers at the border due to the pandemic.
Every option comes with challenges, creating a complicated thicket for the White House and Democratic leaders to navigate. Biden's preferred approach would struggle to get 60 votes in the Senate. But giving in to GOP demands and reversing course on immigration would create problems for the package in the House.
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One option sought by Democrats is to link the Covid bill to Ukraine aid, which has broad and deep support in both parties as Russia's war continues to rage, to grease the wheels for passing both.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the health committee chair, told NBC News she “absolutely” supports pairing Covid funding with the Ukraine aid to move both items expeditiously.
“We have to get something done,” she said. “If we want vaccines available to Americans in the fall, if we want to have the next therapeutics, if we want to have tests available for the next surge, we’ve got to have this money.”
No decision has been made on whether to link the two, a senior Democratic leadership aide said. Multiple senators said they prefer to advance them together as early as next week, after the House and the Senate adjourned for a long weekend Thursday.
“That's probably Plan A, but it's not the only plan,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said of passing both bills together in one package. “I think that that debate will start right now.”
But Senate Republicans expressed opposition to linking the two. Without at least 10 GOP votes, it cannot pass the chamber.
"I think what we need to do is, we need to get Ukraine taken care of and that has to be a priority," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. "We need to have a priority on getting the Ukraine assistance out. So things that slow things down — let's not slow things down."
The second option is to pass the Ukraine aid separately. Numerous Republicans prefer this approach, but Democrats fear it would leave Covid relief stranded without a clear path as federal funding for vaccines, booster shots and therapeutics dries up.
“I think the prospects of each being passed would be greater if they were kept separate, and if each had the potential for amendments,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who negotiated the $10 billion Covid relief deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in early April.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said he would be “hard-pressed” to vote against a bill combining Covid relief and Ukraine aid, but would prefer to see Schumer add on an amendment codifying Title 42.
“Chuck’s shortcoming sometimes is that he gets too cute, and he tries to get to put other stuff in there thinking ‘Well, you know, I’ll put stuff in there they don’t like and they can’t vote against it.’ Well, yeah, we can. And we often do, and that’s part of why we don’t get a lot done,” Kennedy said Thursday.
The third option is to give Republicans a vote on Title 42 and immigration amendments. Some Democrats fear that's inevitable.
“There are things that need to be done. One of those is the Covid supplemental, another is help for Ukraine, and Republicans have said they want to vote on this issue. If that’s the case, then we’ll have to give them the vote,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said earlier this week.
The problem with that approach is that numerous Democrats — centrists and politically vulnerable members facing re-election — would likely vote with the GOP and the amendments could pass the Senate, only to hit a roadblock in the House, where progressives and Hispanic Caucus members are adamant that Title 42 come to an end.
"The math is hard," one senior House Democratic aide said, referring to a package that includes Covid relief, Ukraine aid and an amendment codifying Title 42. "But it hasn't been whipped."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Friday she would favor linking the Ukraine and Covid relief funds, while defending Biden’s decision to rescind the Trump-era public health rule for migrants.
“We haven’t made any decision about how we go forward,” Pelosi told reporters. “But let me just say about Title 42: President Biden did the right thing to substitute something that is more effective at the border to protect our border and to respect our responsibility to welcome refugees or asylum seekers to our country.”
“We have to have something else,” she said, adding that her “understanding” is that the Senate is working “on other language that serves the purpose at the border but is not Title 42.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., said she would oppose a package that includes a re-imposition of Title 42, adding: "I hope there's enough support for that not to happen."
Asked if she believes Pelosi shares her view on Title 42, she said: "Oh, I'm pretty sure — I'd be shocked if she didn't."