Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight

The Senate on Thursday night passed a short-term funding bill to avert a government shutdown after a dayslong fight over President Biden’s vaccine mandate threw the legislation into limbo.

Senators voted 69-28 to pass a stopgap bill to fund the government through Feb. 18. The legislation, which passed the House earlier in the evening, now goes to Biden’s desk where he has until the end of Friday to sign it.

The quick votes are a U-turn from Thursday morning, when the path to avert a shutdown was far from clear. Leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations committees announced a stop-gap deal, but hurdles remained in the Senate amid a standoff with a group of conservatives.

Those lawmakers wanted to use the short-term funding bill, known as a continuing resolution, to defund Biden’s vaccine mandate for larger businesses, federal employees and contractors, and the military. But the effort sparked quick Democratic backlash, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hammering Republicans as “anti-vaccination.”

Even as Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) predicted that the government wouldn’t shut down, senators were locked in a war of words. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned that Republicans would bear the blame for a “Republican anti-vaccine shutdown,” while Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) — one of the senators pushing to defund the vaccine mandate — fired back, saying that a shutdown was “up to Senator Schumer.” 

The path to an offramp slowly emerged on Thursday. 

Marshall and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) said they would agree to help speed up the funding bill if Democrats allowed them a vote on defunding Biden’s vaccine mandate at a simple majority threshold. 

“I’ve offered a very simple solution, a very reasonable solution. … I just want to vote on one amendment,” Lee said. 

Lawmakers waited throughout Thursday, when the Senate typically leaves Washington for the week, to see if Democrats would grant Lee his vote or if the libertarian-minded Republican would back down and instead settle for a vote on the vaccine mandate that Republicans will force next week under the Congressional Review Act. 

Senators emerged from a GOP lunch warning that they weren’t close to a resolution with Lee, raising the specter that the shutdown fight would drag into Friday. But by roughly 5:30 p.m., end-of-week jet fumes appeared to have set in, with senators predicting a quick vote to pass the short-term funding bill. 

Cruz told reporters that it “looks promising” that the conservatives would get their vaccine mandate vote on Thursday night, allowing the short-term government funding bill to pass shortly thereafter. And Schumer, while declining to discuss specifics, told reporters that the chances of a quick resolution to the funding fight was “looking good.” 

Senators ultimately voted 48-50 on the GOP amendment, falling short of the simple majority needed for it to be added to the bill. 

There was some drama after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a perennial swing vote, declined to say throughout Thursday if he would support the GOP proposal if it was allowed to come up for a vote.

If every Republican was present, the GOP would only need to peel off one Democrat — potentially Manchin — in order to include a provision cutting off funding for Biden’s vaccine mandate. But that likely would have sunk the measure in the House, with a shutdown looming.

In the end, Manchin voted against the GOP amendment and Democrats had wiggle room because two Republicans — Sens. John Thune (S.D.) and Bill Hagerty (Tenn.) — missed the vote. 

Republicans will get another shot at Biden’s vaccine mandate next week, where they can vote to nix the regulation with a simple majority under the Congressional Review Act. McConnell, during a Fox News interview, said that it had a “decent chance of passing the Senate.”

Even as Congress has managed to keep the government open through mid-February, they still face significant roadblocks to working out a long-term funding deal. 

The Senate hasn’t taken up any of the fiscal year 2022 funding bills, while the House has passed nine. 

Though top appropriators have met to discuss how to get a deal on full-year funding bills, they appear to have made little progress. 

Asked if they weren’t willing to negotiate until Democrats dropped “poison pills”—policies that one party views as a non-starter — Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, replied: “That’s our plan.”

Tags Biden mandates Biden Vaccine mandate Chuck Schumer COVID-19 government funding Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Barrasso John Thune Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Richard Shelby Roger Marshall Ted Cruz

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