Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the vast majority of Republicans in Congress have viewed the public health measures taken to stop the disease’s spread with suspicion if not outright scorn. In response, we’ve seen the GOP’s members rally against vaccine mandates, scoff at the idea of mask wearing and at times even question the virus’s lethality.
There is, however, one public health response Republicans loved, despite no evidence that it has had a major impact on the course of the pandemic: a rule known as Title 42. And now they’re willing to risk federal funding for every other Covid response to protect it — or at least try to embarrass Democrats in the process.
Earlier this year, the White House warned Congress that the federal government was running out of money to pay for free Covid tests and vaccines. Republicans scoffed and demanded receipts for how past Covid money had been spent, a request that caused additional pandemic funding to be left out of the major spending package Congress passed in March.
Last month, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced they’d come to a deal to provide $10 billion in supplemental funding for Covid prevention and treatment efforts. Half of that money would go toward “the development and purchase of therapeutics — potentially eliminating the need for future vaccine and mask mandates,” Romney said in a statement at the time.
Schumer said in a statement that while the package didn’t include the $5 billion in international Covid aid Democrats wanted, it would nonetheless “give the federal government — and our citizens — the tools we need to continue our economic recovery, keep schools open and keep American families safe.”
It should have been a slam dunk win for bipartisanship, an example of each side giving a little for the greater good. But between then and now, some Senate Republicans saw an opportunity.
Under the Trump administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention implemented the public health rule, which allowed border officials to turn back anyone seeking to claim asylum in the United States. The rule was developed with the theory that a clampdown on the border was needed to stop the spread of an infectious disease. About 4,000 migrants crossing the border to seek asylum are immediately turned back every day thanks to the rule, a number that is expected to increase if Title 42 is lifted and prompts more migrants to attempt the crossing.
But the CDC recently announced, after consulting with the Department of Homeland Security, that “suspending the right to introduce migrants into the United States is no longer necessary.” And so the administration plans to lift the order as of May 23.
Republicans find the idea that America would actually go back to the immigration rules from March 2020 infuriating. In response, Senate Republicans are now “filibustering the bipartisan Covid relief bill unless the Democratic-controlled chamber votes on an amendment to reimpose” Title 42, NBC News reported on Thursday.
Republicans clearly see holding the Covid money hostage as a win-win: Either the money doesn’t get spent, which is no skin off their nose, despite the deaths it could prevent; the Democrats hold the vote and the GOP’s amendment passes, providing them a policy win; or the amendment fails, and Republicans get to harangue Democrats who voted against it in campaign ads ahead of the midterms.
Senate Democrats are considering tying the Covid package to Biden’s requested $33 billion in aid to Ukraine, a cause that both parties actually support. But Republicans are wary about any linkage. Even Romney told NBC News that he believes “the prospects of each being passed would be greater if they were kept separate, and if each had the potential for amendments.” (Way to go to bat for your bill, Mitt.)
Even if the GOP’s amendment does pass the Senate, it would then have to go to the House, where Republicans are even less likely to vote in favor of the Covid spending. House Democrats would also find voting to put Title 42 back into place anathema, especially given that there’s no public health argument for doing so.
That last point is key because, as you may have noticed, nowhere have I mentioned Republicans making the case that there is a public health argument for keeping Title 42’s restrictions. Instead, the GOP has been stoking fears of a surge in migration at the border that some have called a coming “invasion.” That rhetoric has always played well, and Democrats have never really challenged it, instead constantly operating inside the GOP’s “border security above all” framework.
It’s not really surprising, then, to see the Republicans’ priorities laid so starkly bare. There’s no concern about a new variant of Covid popping up, no worries about what happens if Americans need another booster shot of the vaccine. But the idea that brown people might exercise their legal right to seek safety from violence and oppression? That’s something that has to be stopped even it means more people here already getting sick and dying.