By Clare Foran and Manu Raju, CNN
Senate Democrats are struggling to find a path forward to pass a fresh round of Covid-19 aid as they grapple with a difficult choice over whether to allow a vote on a contentious Trump-era pandemic restriction on the border that divides their party and puts vulnerable moderates in a tough spot.
The issue has stalled a Covid package for over a month, a delay that has only served to highlight how congressional Democrats have yet to implement a workable plan to break the impasse and enact a key priority for the party even as the Biden administration warns the aid is desperately needed.
The bill continues to dog Congress — even though the White House insisted months ago that $22.5 billion was needed so the US can be prepared for another surge, allowing more Americans to be vaccinated, tested and treated alongside the risk of new variants.
Back in March, congressional leaders on both sides cut a $16 billion deal, short of the White House’s ask. But then rank-and-file House Democrats rebelled over the spending cuts Republicans wanted as a condition for their support. Facing the prospect that the Democratic revolt could bring down a government funding plan, a furious Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed to drop the Covid aid from the larger plan.
Then a bipartisan group of senators reached a $10 billion deal — dropping money for the global Covid response over disagreements on how to cut spending to offset the costs.
But Republicans made clear they wanted a vote on an amendment targeting the Biden administration’s plan to repeal Trump-era pandemic restrictions on the US-Mexico border known as Title 42. Democrats had hoped to avoid a politically fraught dispute over the issue during an election year that risks pitting the White House against Democrats in competitive reelection battles who have raced to distance themselves from the move to repeal the measure. A Title 42 amendment vote could potentially pass the Senate, an outcome that would amount to a major embarrassment to the administration.
Democrats have privately expressed frustration at the White House for not providing the party with an alternative to support and provide them with political cover for voting against a Title 42 amendment.
It increasingly looks, however, like a vote Senate Democrats may not be able to avoid as pressure mounts on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to allow a vote on the authority to pave the way for passage of Covid aid.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said, “it may be inevitable.”
“There may be a point where to move forward, we have to face this issue on the floor,” said Durbin, adding, “I don’t think we should be frightened away from the merits of the issue. We should really consider it part of our job.”
Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine indicated he would not have an issue taking the vote, noting that “none of us who’ve gotten to the US Senate need to be afraid of an amendment vote.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, agreed, telling CNN on Thursday, “I’m fine with voting on it.”
But in a sign of the split within the party over strategy, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, pushed back on Republican efforts to tie the two issues together, calling it a “ruse” and telling reporters that “irrelevant amendments and provisions really impede” efforts to pass aid.
“All the arguments trying to tie the two are simply a sham, and ultimately failure to pass this will be a shame,” he added.
Schumer has so far refused to cede to GOP demands for a vote targeting the move to lift pandemic restrictions on the border with Mexico, but Republicans believe Schumer will cave.
“I think he’s hearing from his members, I know he is,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota. “They’re just saying, ‘Let’s just vote on this, and get it over with.’ … At some point, they will succumb to that.”
Senate Republicans blocked an effort in April to take up the $10 billion Covid relief deal over demands on amendments, including one to target the Title 42 decision. Republicans have seized on the issue as they seek to turn immigration into a centerpiece of the upcoming midterm elections.
Democrats in competitive reelection battles have attempted to distance themselves from the Title 42 repeal and are bracing for the possibility of a surge of migrants at the border, even as many acknowledge that the pandemic-era rule can’t remain in perpetuity as a way to control the surge at the southern border.
The administration has defended the move and says it does have a plan to deal with the expected surge. Officials have said that they have taken a number of steps to prepare for an influx of migrants and beef up security at the border.
Schumer did not directly answer when asked at a news conference this week if he would allow a vote on Title 42 to help get Covid aid through, but he did say, “We will do everything we can to get Covid legislation passed.”
“The House will pursue Covid legislation. They’re first doing Ukraine, then they’re doing Covid. We’ll see what the House sends over. … When the House passes it, we will do everything we can to get Covid legislation passed.”
In the meantime, Democratic leaders have sent mixed signals over the strategy for passing a bill — and which chamber will take the reins.
While Schumer indicated on Tuesday that the House will send a package to the Senate, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on Wednesday that negotiations are continuing in the Senate.
“There’s a lot of negotiation going on,” the Maryland Democrat said. “I am hopeful that we will move a Covid bill soon. Obviously, negotiations continue in the Senate about getting that done, and what you pay for and what you include.”
Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the House Appropriations Committee chairwoman, said, “That’s all under discussion,” when asked about the timeline for which chamber would act first.
“Not determined,” DeLauro said in response to a question about whether the order has been determined.
DeLauro said that Title 42 is “part of the debate and discussion as to whether that’s handled separately or not.”
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, a member of Senate Democratic leadership, also called on Congress to pass Covid aid but dodged when asked about bringing up a vote on Title 42.
“The House is going to decide how they’re going to deal with that. We’ll see what they send over,” she said.
Pelosi said at a news conference on Thursday, “We must pass Covid,” and later said, “I feel confident we will get something done.”
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CNN’s Morgan Rimmer and Annie Grayer contributed.