May 10, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Schumer’s Title 42 dilemma

Photo illustration of Chuck Schumer in front of a wall of minimalist clocks.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The Senate Republicans' unified opposition is, for the second time this week, forcing Democrats to recalibrate their strategy for trying to pass their major legislative priorities.

Driving the news: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wants to hold a vote to pass a $10 billion coronavirus relief package. Republicans won't allow it without a prior vote on blocking a repeal of the Title 42 immigration ban.

In a twist, the Republican approach may also offer an exit strategy not just for the administration but vulnerable Democrats up for re-election.

  • If successful, it would maintain Title 42 — something some administration officials and senators support — past its planned May 23 repeal.
  • It also would give Senate Democrats in border states — particularly those like Mark Kelly of Arizona — a chance to vote against lifting the ban.
  • That would play well with many of their primary and general election voters.

Why it matters: A united front is nothing new for the Republican minority.

  • But nearly 18 months into Joe Biden's presidency, it's shaping his successes and failures as much as any internal disagreements by Democrats in the 50-50 Senate.

The backstory: Republicans have made clear they don't plan to vote in favor of coronavirus aid unless they also get a vote on an amendment stopping the White House from rescinding Title 42, a Trump-era immigration ban rooted in controlling the coronavirus.

  • There are now several options Democrats are considering, Axios has learned, but the clock is ticking before May 23.

Between the lines: The decision to separate the COVID-19 funding from the Ukraine bill was vital to its passing but left the fate of coronavirus aid in even more peril.

  • The administration says the extra money is needed to maintain testing and vaccination regimens in the face of climbing case counts and potential new COVID-19 variants.
  • While initially opposed to the Republican demand, Democratic lawmakers — including those in leadership — are warming to the idea, Politico first reported.

But there are two big problems with allowing such a vote:

1. There's a good chance the amendment passes and successfully unravels the administration's plans.

2. Even if Democrats give in to GOP demands on this and allow a vote on the amendment, it's unclear whether Republicans would vote to pass the COVID-19 aid bill anyway.

  • Many members of the GOP conference oppose the bill, arguing, in part, against more federal spending while inflation is reaching new heights. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last month the bill "will require several amendments to get across the floor.”
  • Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate GOP conference, would not say whether he'd support the bill regardless of a Title 42 amendment vote.
  • Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told Axios he'd vote to block the repeal of Title 42 but likely wouldn't vote for the COVID-19 package. "I'm having a hard time understanding why we need any more money for COVID."

This is a huge concern of Schumer's.

  • It also explains why he's been slow to reveal his strategy.

What we're hearing: Axios interviewed several lawmakers and their aides — including those in Democratic leadership — on Tuesday, and they laid out several potential options for how this fight may play out.

1. Hold a vote on the Lankford-Sinema proposal, or a similar amendment, and risk its passage.

2. Let the courts decide. A federal judge in Louisiana temporarily blocked the Biden administration from immediately ending the Title 42 restrictions last month.

  • U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays has another court hearing scheduled for Friday to consider requests from 21 Republican-led states who filed a lawsuit to prevent the administration from halting the ban. This could impact Congress' options.

3. Delay a vote until after May 23, when the ban is scheduled to be lifted. But this option wouldn’t prevent lawmakers from insisting on potential action against the Title 42 repeal after the fact.

Schumer insists he has no current game plan, and speculation over what will happen is premature. Schumer argues the House must first pass the COVID-19 bill, then the Senate will proceed with next steps.

  • Schumer personally opposes the Title 42 ban and wants it to be lifted but has acknowledged the divisions within his caucus.
  • "Our Republican friends should not be blocking COVID legislation. We don't know what they might throw in the way. We don't even know if they want to pass it. So, when the House passes it, we will do everything we can to get COVID legislation passed," Schumer said Tuesday.
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