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Congress skips town without passing Covid relief

Lawmakers departed Washington on Thursday for a two-week recess without passing the massive $10 billion deal, the second time Congress has failed to act on what the President has made clear is essential funding.

“Congress needs to act now,” Biden pleaded last week. “The consequences of inaction are severe.”

This time, the impasse came as Republicans demanded a vote on an immigration amendment to restore Title 42, a pandemic-era rule that allowed immigrants to be returned immediately to their home countries citing a public health emergency. Democrats objected, blasting Republicans for what they called an eleventh-hour ask in a negotiation they had thought was final.

But the fight over immigration is just the latest in a series of stumbles Congress has had trying to respond to an unpredictable and ever-changing virus.

The Biden administration announced last week that it planned to roll Title 42 back in May, but the decision has been blasted by Republicans and Democrats alike. Still, Democratic leaders say a vote now on an amendment would violate the agreement they thought they’d struck with Republicans. And while a number of Democrats have said they would support standalone legislation reinstating Title 42 as long as a public health emergency exists in other parts of the government, even members who have opposed Biden’s action say they don’t want to have the debate as part of Covid funding.

“We had a bipartisan agreement and unfortunately, because of an extraneous issue, we aren’t going to be able to get the 10 Republican votes we need to pass it,” said Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

This is the second time a tentative deal on a Covid relief package has been scuttled in just over a month. In March, a $15.6 billion package that had been negotiated by House and Senate leaders collapsed when a group of House Democrats revolted against it because of how it was paid for. Just weeks later, another hard-fought deal was negotiated, but it was smaller, totaling just $10 billion instead of almost $16 billion.

“When they blew that agreement up, you are trying to do this as a freestanding bill, and it just gets that much more complicated,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the GOP whip. “There are a lot of issues surrounding this now. … We will see where it goes from here.”

The impasse comes as Covid is still very much a reality on Capitol Hill. This week alone, nearly a dozen members, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have tested positive for the virus. The $10 billion package would largely go to prepare the US for future outbreaks and would make investments in testing, treatment and therapeutics.

It’s still possible that senators will be able to find a way forward after the Easter recess, but it’s not clear the 10 GOP votes will materialize without a vote on the immigration amendment. And GOP senators point out that the longer the bill hangs out, the harder it may be to get across the finish line at all.

“Ten billion dollars is a lot of money,” said Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio. “I think it is reasonable to say, ‘Let’s have a handful of amendments on each side.’ “

Asked if he was afraid the bill may never happen now that lawmakers have left for the recess, GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said, “Never is a long time.”

“I think we need to deal with it, and I think we can figure out how to deal with it, but the Title 42 announcement was a real problem,” he said.

Blunt offered that the administration’s timing on its decision to roll back Title 42, which essentially signaled there was no longer a public health crisis at the border, had imperiled the fate of the bill.

“There might have been an amendment issue, but not an amendment that Democrats saw as kryptonite,” he said.

Democrats are insistent that eventually the Covid relief will pass. It may just take some time to sort out the details.

“It will get through,” said Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia. “We are playing a little bit of Russian roulette here. What if the virus spikes? I don’t know what is the current inventory of supplies?”

CNN’s Manu Raju and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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