Republicans want votes on immigration before debating the $10 billion COVID relief bill

Democrats say this is potentially devastating for every American worried about a new variant sending cases and deaths spiking all over again

WASHINGTON (AP) – A Democratic attempt to begin Senate debate on a $10 billion COVID-19 compromise was blocked by Republicans.

A day after Democratic and GOP bargainers reached an agreement on providing the money for treatments, vaccines and testing, a Democratic move to push the measure past a procedural hurdle failed 52-47 on Tuesday. The Democrats were 13 votes short after all 50 Republicans opposed the move.

Republicans said unless Democrats agreed to votes on an amendment preventing Joe Biden from lifting Trump-era curbs on migrants entering the U.S., they would withhold crucial support for the measure.

“I think there will have to be” an amendment preserving the immigration restrictions “in order to move the bill” bolstering federal pandemic efforts, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters.

In the 50-50 Senate, at least 10 GOP votes are needed for the measure to reach the necessary 60 votes. Republicans could withhold support until Democrats permit a vote on an immigration amendment.

Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. are pushing Congress to approve the pandemic bill before a two-week recess for lawmakers. Based on the vote on Tuesday, that could be difficult.

“This is a potentially devastating vote for every single American who was worried about the possibility of a new variant rearing its nasty head within a few months,” Schumer said after the vote.

“Today’s Senate vote is a step backward for our ability to respond to this virus,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

The new COVID variant, BA.2, is expected to increase the amount of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. Over 6 million people worldwide and about 980,000 Americans have died due to COVID.

Half of the proposed bill would finance research and production of therapeutics to treat COVID-19. Remaining funds would be used to purchase vaccines and testes to research new variants.

Funds for the bill would be taken from unspent pandemic funds provided earlier for protecting aviation manufacturing jobs, closed entertainment venues and other programs.

President Donald Trump imposed immigration curbs letting authorities expel asylum seekers and migrants due to public health reasons during the middle of the pandemic. The ban will expire May 23, which could cause a massive increase in people crossing the Mexican border into the U.S.

While many of the party’s lawmakers and their liberal supporters want the U.S. to open their borders to immigrants, some Democrats worry about lifting the restrictions.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who faces a competitive reelection this fall, would not say if she supports retaining the Trump-era ban but said more needs to be done.

“I need a plan, we need a plan,” she said in a brief interview. “There’s going to be a surge at the border. There should be a plan and I’ve been calling for it all along.”

Schumer showed no interest in getting his party involved in the immigration vote.

“This is a bipartisan agreement that does a whole lot of important good for the American people. Vaccines, testing, therapeutics,” he said. “It should not be held hostage for an extraneous issue.”

The federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention initiated the move two years ago. Earlier this month, they said they would lift the ban in May. The ban, Title 42, have been harder to justify as the pandemic has eased.

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., a supporter of terminating Trump’s curb, questioned GOP motives for reinstating the restrictions.

“I find it very ironic for those who haven’t wanted to have a vaccination mandate, for those who did not want to have masks in the classroom, for them to suddenly be very interested in protecting the public,” she said.

Rep. Renni Thomspon, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he would support the COVID-19 aid bill if GOP made an effort to retain the Trump immigration restrictions.

“Why wouldn’t I?” he said in a brief interview.

AP congressional correspondent Lisa Mascaro and reporters Chris Megerian and Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.

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