The Senate stalemate over President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate could still spur a government shutdown Friday night, despite House passage of a bipartisan deal to keep federal cash flowing.
The House passed an 11-week stopgap spending measure Thursday afternoon that would keep the government funded at current levels through Feb. 18. But that 221-212 vote came too late to ensure Congress can avert a shutdown come midnight Friday, since a single senator could now prompt a funding lapse by bucking attempts to accelerate debate.
On the other side of the Capitol, a group of conservative senators continues to threaten to do just that. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who is leading the push against the president’s vaccination requirements, said Thursday night that he will reject Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s attempts to fast-track the bill unless Democrats allow a simple-majority vote to bar funding for Biden’s vaccine mandate on U.S. businesses.
“Schumer is accusing us of wanting to shut down the government by helping cram through a bill” many Republicans oppose, Lee said. Current funding levels were established during former President Donald Trump’s administration.
Amendments typically require 60 votes for approval. A lower threshold would increase Lee’s likelihood of success, with possible support coming across the aisle from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
Schumer said on the floor Thursday that “Republican dysfunction could be a roadblock to averting an unnecessary and dangerous shutdown.” If there is a funding lapse, the majority leader said, “it will be a Republican, anti-vaccine shutdown.”
Senators in both parties privately doubted Schumer would allow Lee to get his amendment on his terms. But in a brief interview, Lee sounded a different note.“I think they will. I do,” Lee said. “We just want a vote.”
Several Republican senators have publicly lamented the shutdown ultimatum their colleagues have waged, arguing that the effort is pointless considering Biden’s vaccine mandate is getting crushed in court.
“What’s the point? The American people have been through a lot … and I just don’t think they need to be scared further through a shutdown, ” Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) said Thursday. “If there is a shutdown, it will be very short. But I just still think the flame’s not worth the candle.”
There’s no guarantee lawmakers can avoid even a brief weekend shutdown, which, although disruptive, wouldn’t adversely affect federal agencies or employees.
In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi tore into the Senate GOP push to halt government funding over the vaccine mandate, and said House Democrats would not entertain their amendment push.
“If you think that’s how we’re going to keep government open, forget that,” Pelosi said.
The House’s passage vote came hours after Democrats announced an eleventh-hour stopgap funding deal with Republicans on Thursday morning, following days of late-night talks as both parties scrambled to prevent Congress from stumbling past the deadline.
Government funding will now run through the third week of February — weeks later than Democrats wanted — but House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said her party “prevailed” in securing a $7 billion increase to pay for resettling Afghan refugees.
Both parties say the skirmish over the short-term funding fix will be far simpler than the brutal fight to come over Congress’ full-year spending. Democrats are eager to pass a government funding bill that can finally include Biden’s priorities — the first such spending bill of his presidency. Without it, the federal government has continued to run on spending levels established under former President Donald Trump.
There’s also the problem of billions of dollars in looming cuts to Medicare and farm aid programs that could take effect next year — which the deal reached Thursday does not address. Those scheduled funding decreases are a consequence of the budget reconciliation process used to pass Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package back in March.
Congress typically avoids such cuts with bipartisan ease, but Republicans haven’t been inclined to help while the majority party pursues big spending plans without GOP support. Democrats have pledged to find another legislative vehicle to address the drastic funding reductions next year. But they will still need assistance from at least 10 Senate Republicans, setting up another possible showdown as the GOP focuses on spending and inflation concerns ahead of the 2022 midterms.
Senate Republicans have openly indicated that they don’t plan to make resolving any of those obstacles easy for Democrats, particularly the upcoming battle over a bill to set government spending levels for the rest of the fiscal year.
In a statement, Sen. Richard Shelby made clear that the Senate GOP will enter full-year funding talks with the same priorities that have complicated discussions for months. The Alabama Republican, who serves as his party’s top Senate appropriator, insists that Democrats buckle upfront to GOP policy demands for the funding bills, such as continuing the longtime ban on federal funding for abortions.
“If that doesn’t happen, we’ll be having this same conversation in February,” Shelby cautioned.
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.