Derailed By Immigration Fight, COVID Funding May Have To Wait Weeks : The NPR Politics Podcast As the Senate prepares to leave town for a two-week break, a bipartisan deal for $10 billion in new COVID money is on hold thanks to a fight over immigration. The BIden administration announced plans to lift a Trump-era restriction called Title 42. It allowed the U.S. to block migrants from entering the country before they have the chance to make an asylum claim. Republicans and some conservative Democrats want to see the rule reinstated.

And new sanctions have been implemented against Russia by the U.S. and its allies after the discovery of mass graves following the withdrawal of Russian troops near Kyiv. But the most significant source of Russian money, fossil fuel sales to Europe, continues more or less unscathed — raising the question of what, if anything, would lead fuel purchases to be halted.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, congressional correspondent Susan Davis, national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and internation correspondent Jackie Northam.

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Derailed By Immigration Fight, COVID Funding May Have To Wait Weeks

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SUSIE: This is Susie (ph) from Ste. Genevieve, Mo. Yesterday, I celebrated my six-month kidney-versary (ph). And today I'm speaking to high school sophomores about my experience with living organ donation. This podcast was recorded at...


1:09 p.m. on Wednesday, April 6.

SUSIE: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but Sidney (ph) the kidney will still be working hard for my new pal, Gary (ph).



SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Sidney the kidney.

KEITH: That is such a cool thing.

DAVIS: That's a good friend.

KEITH: Or a good stranger. Like, this is truly a remarkable thing.

DAVIS: Yeah.

KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: Today's podcast cannot be contained to one topic. So we are starting with a new twist in this ongoing political fight over COVID money. And then there are now more sanctions against Russia, but the question continues whether they'll change anything.

So about that COVID money, Sue, if we had taped this podcast yesterday, we would have been talking about a bipartisan deal for $10 billion of testing, treatments and vaccines. And it looked to be on a glide path until it wasn't, like so many things. So what is going on?

DAVIS: Well, the deal on the $10 billion in COVID money stands. There's bipartisan support for the Senate. If it was a standalone measure, it has the votes to pass here and likely in the House. The problem that has arisen is, because it's supposed to come up on the floor, Republicans saw an opportunity to offer an amendment to the legislation, essentially to extend something that's called Title 42. Title 42 is something that the CDC just announced that they're going to be rescinding later next month. It was existing law that the Trump administration used during the pandemic to basically expedite deportations at the border. The CDC says it is no longer necessary and that the border situation will now fall under normal immigration law. Republicans - and, frankly, several Senate Democrats - aren't happy about the decision to end Title 42, so now the COVID aid is sort of being held up until they can resolve this issue. And there's really no good answer right now for how the Senate gets out of this.

KEITH: Right. So this was a public health measure that came about during the pandemic, during the height of the pandemic, but that was used to sort of constrain immigration or to create a circumstance where people didn't want to come into the country and couldn't stay if they did. But, Mara, this now is hanging up this legislation, and it doesn't seem to be purely partisan. Is that right?

LIASSON: No, it's not purely partisan, and it's not just about this legislation. Immigration is a huge, red-hot political issue in the midterms, and Republicans feel it's one of their No. 1 issues that they're going to use against the Democrats. Now, Donald Trump used Title 42, which, as you said, is a public health measure, to stop immigration, something he wanted to do but didn't - wasn't able to do with other measures. So Joe Biden, who's a kind of rules-following Democrat, is saying, look; the public health underpinning or the public health rationale for Title 42 is no longer here, so we're going to have to suspend it. But there are a lot of vulnerable Senate Democrats who don't want to have a huge influx of immigrants over the southern border. It's very bad for their prospects in the midterms, so they would have liked Title 42 to come back. And I want to hear what Sue's take on this is, but this is one of those examples where following the rules is crashing into political reality because following the rules is not going to make life any easier for the vulnerable Senate Democratic incumbents this year.

DAVIS: They're in a real problem here. I talked to one of the Senate Democrats, Mark Kelly. He's a Democrat from Arizona, a border state. He's up for reelection this year. And he's been really plain-spoken about this. He's like, look; I don't support Title 42. I don't need it to be there for forever. His frustration is he does not believe that the Biden administration or the Department of Homeland Security has clearly outlined what the plan is going to be at the border for when this order expires. And he said he's been telling them this for a long time. And I said to him, well, what did they tell you when you say you have a problem, you don't have a plan? He said, well, I don't want to get into what the administration has said back to me. But it's clear the administration is not telling Democrats what they want to hear to feel like they can support this immigration policy right now.

KEITH: Let's just do, like, a little border date book here, which is, it is spring. Spring is when typically there is a surge of migrants at the southern border, whether Title 42 is there or not. And it was a huge political problem for the Biden administration last year. There's no reason to believe it would be different this year, right?

DAVIS: Yeah. And, I mean, look; like, the situation on the border is not good. It hasn't been good for a long time. I mean, the Title 42 stuff complicated it because the pandemic complicated everything. But one of the things that's interesting about this is this has provided people who would like immigration to be a bigger part of our political debate - frankly, it really hasn't been in recent months, even in - technically kind of in recent years, because the pandemic and the economy have so overtaken the day-to-day concern, at least of Washington. But it is pushing immigration back into the spotlight.

And it's a position that I think Republicans feel really comfortable fighting with the Biden administration on because if you look at how the public feels about the border, they want more border security. They're not - it's easy to make rolling back Title 42 seem like a bad idea to the public, that it looks like you're making it easier to make people come across the border. Now, of course, immigration policy is far more complicated than that, but in these immigration debates, it's not often that nuanced, right? So if they can't resolve this issue, it might force immigration back into the conversation in a way that, frankly, I don't think a lot of Democrats, particularly in the Senate, really want this to be a top debate because they feel vulnerable on this issue, especially for the senators that are up for reelection this year.

KEITH: Well, they're not going to solve immigration...


KEITH: ...You know, broadly before November. I mean, that has been clear for a while. Can we go back to this poor, languishing COVID money? Where does it go from here? They were trying to pass this legislation to get this money out the door before spring break. Now it looks like that isn't going to happen.

DAVIS: It seems unlikely. I've talked to several senators today who think the expectation now is they're just going to have to take it up after the two-week break. So late April is now best-case scenario for getting it approved, although I will note this. Miracles happen in the Senate in 48 hours before long breaks. Sometimes deals can come together really quickly. I would just say the mood check I had from talking to senators all morning is nobody's really planning on having a vote on this before they break.

KEITH: All right. Well, Sue, we're going to say thank you, goodbye. So thank you. Goodbye.

DAVIS: Talk to you later.

KEITH: And after a quick break, new sanctions against Russia.


KEITH: And we're back with Jackie Northam. Hey, Jackie.


KEITH: President Biden today announced more sanctions against Russia.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Responsible nations have to come together to hold these perpetrators accountable. And together with our allies and our partners, we're going to keep raising the economic cost and ratchet up the pain for Putin and further increase Russia's economic isolation.


KEITH: These sanctions come in response to evidence that civilians were killed by Russian forces in communities outside of the Ukrainian capital. So, Jackie, help us understand, what are these new sanctions? What do they do?

NORTHAM: Well, it's interesting. It's the U.S., but it's also G-7 and European Union. So it's a full phalanx of allies here doing this. And really tough sanctions they introduced today, particularly against two of Russia's largest financial institutions. And that's SpareBank and Alpha Bank. And the second one is a private bank. They've been hit with full blocking sanctions, which means that they're no longer able to transact with any U.S. person or institution in any currency. So it basically freezes them. And if you think about it, SpareBank actually holds about a third of Russia's banking assets, which is like, you know, half a trillion dollars, over $500 billion. So this is big.

Another move is that the U.S. is cutting off Russia's ability to use its frozen funds in its central bank to meet its debt obligations, you know, make debt payment. And what this means is this is kind of pushing Russia another step closer to default. You know, this hasn't happened in about a century as well. There's also full blocking sanctions on more of Russia's elite. You know, and this includes the wife and daughter of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, but also two of President Putin's adult daughters. They were all hit with full blocking sanctions again today.

KEITH: Mara, the question the White House keeps getting asked is, are sanctions enough? Like, are they doing what they want them to do? Are they meeting the goals? And are they even an appropriate response to what the president and secretary of state have described as war crimes?

LIASSON: Well, today, when President Biden announced these sanctions, he said, of course, this isn't all we're doing. We're giving hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in defense aid to Ukraine. He said that the sanctions are going to continue to stifle the Russian economy for years to come. But there's no doubt that there are some big things missing in these sanctions. First of all, they were announced alongside the European Union and the G-7 countries. But there are some very big economies in the world that are not participating - China, India, Brazil.

And one of the things that's missing also is energy. Europe continues to buy energy, gas, oil, coal from Russia. And I'm wondering - I wanted to ask Jackie - how close you think the Europeans are to going cold turkey, risking recessions in their own country in order to really hurt the Russian economy where it would hurt the most, and that would be in the energy sector?

NORTHAM: I think it depends which country you're talking about. You see Lithuania...

LIASSON: Germany.

NORTHAM: OK. So I was going to say, if you think Lithuania, it's a small country. It's calling for outright bans. Don't do it.


NORTHAM: But if you - as you say, Germany, that's a big one. I mean, it is reliant on Russian gas to, you know, heat its homes and run its companies, everything else. And so, you know, that's going to be a much tougher one. You know, they're talking about phasing out, maybe perhaps adding tariffs. You know, we're going to be not cutting off oil by the end of this year and gas within a couple of years. And that's not going to have a huge impact, you know, on what's going to happen with the war in Ukraine right now. You know, one of the things though, oil and gas make up the bulk of the Russian government's revenue. You know, it's the cash cow.

And if you do cut these off cold turkey, what will happen? And if you think - with Vladimir Putin, you know, all of a sudden it could just devastate the economy. It's, you know, it's the only thing that they've got. You know, there's a real debate whether it would make him more pliable about Ukraine, force him to stop the war there, or would, in fact, he just double down? Because at that point, he has got nothing to lose. So it's one of those things that they have to, you know, that has to be taken into consideration when you're talking about, as you say, cold turkey, you know, cutting off oil and gas.

KEITH: So I want to ask you bigger picture. With these sanctions, with all of these efforts by the G-7 and the EU and NATO countries, what is the end goal here with all of this - all of these financial efforts? Is it just to wreck the Russian economy so badly that somehow Putin is no longer in power? I mean, like, what's the endgame?

NORTHAM: Well, again, I think it's to put him - you know, the best-case scenario, put him in a position where he will come to a negotiating table, like serious negotiations about peace here, not what we're seeing so far. But again, that hasn't happened. In the meantime, the Russian economy is taking a real hit. The U.S. was saying today, the Treasury Department was saying today, you know, they're looking at inflation of about 20% there and continuing to rise. The ruble, you know, it dumped, but it's being - it's come up a bit, but it's kind of - it's been propped up rather than anything else.

You're seeing just this this exodus of, you know, Western expertise, of technology, everything. We're seeing tankers, oil tankers, doing U-turns in the Atlantic, because all of a sudden they don't, you know, those customers have gone away. We're seeing major corporations - you know, you think of Apple, Intel, all these - they're getting out. They're not being sanctioned, but they don't want to, you know, grasp that third rail of U.S. sanctions, because if you're a company, you don't want to get knocked out of the U.S. financial system at all.

KEITH: We are going to leave it there for today. Jackie, thank you so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Tam.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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