Republicans want vote on reversing decision to lift Trump-era immigration rule, pushing some Democrats to join them
by Tarini Parti and Eliza Collins, The Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2022
WASHINGTON—Senate Republicans are pushing to include in a bipartisan deal on Covid-19 aid an amendment to reinstate a Trump-era pandemic border policy that the Biden administration ended, putting pressure on some Democrats to join their effort.
Vulnerable Democrats, including Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly and New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan, have said the administration doesn’t have a detailed plan in place to deal with the expected increase in migrants to the southern border in May, when the administration plans to lift the border policy known as Title 42.
The policy, which former President Donald Trump first introduced in March 2020 in response to Covid-19, allows the government to immediately turn away people who are arrested trying to enter the country illegally as well as those who seek asylum at a border checkpoint. The policy change, the administration acknowledged, is likely to result in a further rise in illegal border crossings, as migrants who want to seek asylum will no longer be blocked from doing so.
Mr. Kelly, who has called the administration’s decision to lift the policy unacceptable, said on Tuesday he is open to considering the GOP amendment to restore the policy.
“I’m open to getting to a point where this does not wind up being a complete mess here at the end of May,” Mr. Kelly said.
The amendment has yet to be released and GOP aides say it is being worked out. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday there would have to be a Title 42-related amendment vote in order to move the Covid-19 aid forward. Republicans blocked a Democratic effort to move the legislation forward Tuesday absent a plan on how the bill would be amended.
“I’m voting ‘no’ on the procedural vote until we’re told what the amendment process is going to be and once that’s agreed to by the two leaders, then I’ll be all in favor of moving ahead,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the key Republican negotiator on the coronavirus legislation, told reporters ahead of the vote.
He said he didn’t see the urgency to get the legislation done before senators break for a two-week recess next week, but added “I’d like to move as quickly as possible. Usually things have a normal life cycle and you hate to have them delayed by two weeks.”
Republicans’ ability to peel off Democratic senators will depend on its details, Democratic aides say. Republicans can demand the amendment be added, with a 50 or 60 vote threshold, or keep the coronavirus legislation from moving. Under either threshold, enough Democrats could break for the amendment to pass in the Senate, but it would face a challenge in the Democratic-led House.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said the coronavirus legislation “should not be held hostage for an extraneous issue.”
Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, moderates who aren’t up for re-election but have opposed Mr. Biden’s policies on several issues, have also criticized the administration’s Title 42 decision.
Other centrist Democrats are seen as possible “yes” votes. Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.) and John Hickenlooper (Colo.) said they would consider the amendment, but needed more information.
Despite his opposition to ending the policy, Mr. Manchin told reporters Tuesday he wouldn’t support slowing the coronavirus legislation over Title 42. “I’m not going to hold Covid relief up and the well-being of the citizens of the United States on policy,” he said.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the lack of Covid funding will have consequences. “The program that reimbursed doctors, pharmacists and other providers for vaccinating the uninsured had to end today due to a lack of funds,’’ she said in a written statement. “America’s supply of monoclonal antibodies that are effective at keeping people out of the hospital will run out as soon as late May.’’
The $10 billion coronavirus package is the result of weeks of bipartisan negotiations and if passed will allow the U.S. to purchase supplies, including more tests and vaccines, that the Biden administration said would be needed to continue to fight the virus. The measure pulls from unused money in earlier bills passed by Congress, rather than representing new spending.
Asked if Republicans were willing to hold up Covid-19 aid over the amendment, Sen. James Lankford (R., Okla.) said the two issues were related since the administration was asking for money to combat the pandemic while lifting the public health rule at the border at the same time. “I’m not going to say where we are at this point, but this is an important issue,” he said.
Republicans have made immigration a focus of their midterm attacks as they try to overcome Democrats’ narrow majorities in Congress in November. Mr. Kelly, who represents a border state, is a top target. President Biden won his state in 2020 by just over 10,000 votes or one-third of a percentage point.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is delaying the implementation of the Title 42 order until May 23 to allow the Department of Homeland Security to prepare. The administration is planning for several scenarios in which daily border crossings climb to as many as 18,000 a day, officials have said.
White House officials see the implementation of a new asylum policy, which asks asylum officers rather than immigration judges to hear claims and is meant to speed up the time it takes to deliver a migrant’s asylum decision, as a significant piece of their post-Title 42 border strategy, according to people familiar with their thinking.
“Title 42 is a public health authority and therefore it’s always been a decision made by the scientists and public health experts at the CDC,” said White House Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients on Tuesday. “And it’s based on the public health conditions and it should remain independent of the urgently needed funding that we talked about today to sustain our Covid response here domestically and our global response. So this should not be included on any funding bill.”
The Title 42 debate shows the deepening divisions among Democrats on border policy. Progressives and several party leaders, who had been putting pressure on the administration to end the policy and restore the asylum process at the border, celebrated the decision, as moderates spoke out against it.
“This does give senators in swing states an opportunity to show their independence, and most of these folks were elected with a promise to put their state first over their political party,” said Justin Barasky, a Democratic strategist who worked as a senior adviser to the Senate Democrats campaign arm in the 2020 election.
Immigration and border security remain a top issue for voters, according to a March Wall Street Journal poll. The same poll found that 57% of those surveyed disapproved of Mr. Biden’s handling of the border, and 33% said they approved. U.S. Border Patrol agents made a record-high 1.9 million arrests in 2021.
Republicans are signaling the party will increase immigration-focused attacks if there is a surge at the border.
“If the numbers that they’re predicting happen, we’re talking about a surge that is bigger than any caravan that we’ve ever talked about before,” said Chris Hartline, spokesman for the Senate GOP’s campaign arm. “This is just about the worst-case scenario for Mark Kelly, for sure, but it’s an issue that will be relevant pretty much anywhere in the country.”
House Republicans are also attempting to force a vote to keep Title 42 in place but so far have fallen short of the number of signatures needed in that chamber because Democrats haven’t joined.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, the leader of the House progressives who strongly supported lifting Title 42, said immigration-related issues are “often used to divide people.”
“Because it’s complicated in terms of immigration law, there are a lot of people who just don’t understand it, and they don’t know how to talk about it, and they get nervous and backed into a corner,” she said.
Lindsay Wise and Sabrina Siddiqui contributed to this article.