Senate seeks offramp as funding deadline nears

Senators are hunting for a quick offramp as they head closer to a Friday night deadline to avoid a government shutdown.  

Lawmakers are cautiously confident there won’t be a shutdown and are in negotiations to try to untangle snags that would block quick passage.

The main snags they’re worried about include President Biden’s vaccine mandate and a push to balance the budget. In a win for a quick deal, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) dropped her hold on the funding bill on Tuesday evening after getting reassurances from the administration that federal funding won’t go toward crack pipes.  

Aides and senators on Tuesday predicted they could get a deal as soon as Wednesday, though they cautioned Thursday was more likely. A group of lawmakers are also eager to get out of town to go to an international security conference, putting pressure on the Senate to avoid its normal down-to-the-wire drama.  

“We have a number of people who would like to get amendment votes, and so I think it’s in the process of being negotiated. … The question will be how does everybody get their issue resolved?” said Sen. John Thune (S.D), the No. 2 Republican senator.  

He added that he expected they would avoid a shutdown by the Friday night deadline but that it could be “painful” unless Democrats agree to give their members votes on potential changes to the funding bill.  

“If the Democrats are willing to accommodate it, I think this moves fairly quickly,” Thune said.

The House passed a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government under the previous year’s spending levels through March 11. That is intended to buy time for negotiators to finalize work on a larger omnibus spending package for fiscal 2022.  

Senate leadership hasn’t yet locked in on a glide path to quickly pass the bill, but they voiced confidence on Tuesday that there wouldn’t be a shutdown.  

“No one and certainly not my Republican colleagues want a Republican government shutdown. So I’m hopeful that they will cooperate with us to pass this necessary CR, which every single Democrat wants to happen and will cooperate to make sure that it happens,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.  

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also predicted they wouldn’t blow past the Friday deadline.

“As is often the case, we’ll process a few amendments before doing the short-term CR. I think it’ll all be worked out. There’s no danger of a government shutdown,” McConnell told reporters during a weekly press conference.  

Though the Senate has until Friday night to pass the short-term funding bill and prevent a government shutdown, Republicans could use the Senate’s rulebook to drive Congress past the deadline and into a weekend shutdown.

Part of an agreement would swap votes on GOP amendments in exchange for speeding up the Senate’s passage of the short-term funding bill.  

The thorniest issue was Blackburn’s hold on the funding bill as part of a lingering dust-up spawning from reports in conservative media last week that funding from a harm reduction grant program run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) could be used to provide safe smoke kits, which the initial reports said could include crack pipes.  

A spokesperson for Blackburn said Tuesday night that she had dropped her hold “after she received an answer in writing from the HHS Secretary committing that no taxpayer funding will be used to fund crack pipes.” 

GOP senators say they want two to three amendment votes including a balanced budget proposal from Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and a group of conservatives who are warning that they won’t support speeding up the CR without a vote on blocking Biden’s vaccine mandate.  

“We invite you to stand with us and oppose the CR until it explicitly defunds the implementation and enforcement of these mandates. At a minimum, we need to take a vote on this before funding their enforcement. The livelihoods and personal freedom of millions of Americans are at stake,” the group wrote.  

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) predicted there would be three votes tied to the CR: Two on GOP amendments related to the vaccine mandate and Braun’s balanced budget amendment.  

“It looks to me like we’re on a glide path to getting it done pretty quick,” Cornyn said.  

The CR will be the third to stave off a shutdown for the current fiscal year, if passed, as both sides of the aisle have had a hard time finding bipartisan agreement on a number of issues, including parity between defense and nondefense spending, as well as legislative riders. 

But talks on the longer fiscal 2022 funding bills appear to have made progress in the days since an announcement by Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, of a deal on the framework for an omnibus spending package.  

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told The Hill on Tuesday afternoon that all 12 appropriations subcommittees have received their top-line spending numbers. 

“We’ve been working through the weekend on allocations,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the committee, “so we have a pretty good sense of it.”

Tags Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Joe Biden John Cornyn John Thune Marsha Blackburn Mike Braun Mitch McConnell Patrick Leahy Richard Shelby

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