Senate slips within 48 hours of government shutdown deadline

Senate absences and last-minute talks over barring funding for drug paraphernalia are slowing down government funding talks, pushing lawmakers within 48 hours of the shutdown deadline.  

The Senate wrapped up its work on Wednesday night without a deal for how to quickly vote on and pass the short-term funding bill, which would keep the government open through March 11. It will reconvene at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday morning, a day before Friday night’s shutdown deadline, without a clear path to an agreement.  

One of the biggest hurdles right now is Senate Democratic math. 

As part of a deal to speed up the continuing resolution (CR), Republicans want votes on two amendments to defund President Biden’s vaccine mandates. GOP senators have made similar efforts during the previous short-term spending bills, and they’ve fallen short.  

But Democrats appear to be short the votes needed to defeat the amendments, which would need only a simple majority to be added to the CR. Three Democratic senators missed votes on Wednesday: Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who recently suffered a stroke, and Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who are both dealing with family medical emergencies. 

A spokesperson for Feinstein said she would not return on Thursday due to the family medical emergency. A spokesperson for Kelly didn’t immediately respond to a question about his schedule.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), the No. 4 Senate Democrat, confirmed that a complication for getting an agreement on how to wrap up the CR is currently the Democratic absences.  

Only one GOP senator was absent on Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), meaning that Republicans would have the majority needed to get defunding the vaccine mandates into the government funding bill.  

But any changes to the CR by the Senate would force it to go back to the House, which is in the middle of a two-week recess and where Democrats are unlikely to support a funding bill that defunds President Biden’s vaccination requirements.  

“I think that’s their issue. … I think if we had the votes now, we’d probably win them,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, about the Democratic absences on the CR amendment votes.  

Republicans want votes on two amendments. One from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) would prohibit federal funding from going from schools and child care centers that require a coronavirus vaccination to enroll, attend an in-person event or participate in school-sponsored activities. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is also leading a group of GOP senators pushing for a vote to defund vaccine requirements for medical workers, military personnel, federal employees and contractors for the length of the CR.  

One option could be for GOP senators to pair their votes with the absent Democratic senators. That happened earlier this week when Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) voted “present” because he had paired with Lujan.  

“You have to have people who are willing to pair. … We’ll see. We haven’t had a real, I would say, full-throated discussion about pairing just yet,” Thune said.  

Democrats could also try to set the amendment vote threshold at Republicans needing 51 “yes” votes, rather than a simple majority of those voting, or try to offer Republicans a vote on the vaccine mandates after a soon-to-start one-week break instead of as amendments to the CR.  

In addition to the absences, senators are also trying to resolve Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) hold on quick passage of the funding bill. Rubio wants a vote on his bill — or to pass it by unanimous consent, which requires the support of all 100 senators — that would prohibit federal funding from going toward crack pipes and other drug paraphernalia in exchange for speeding up the CR. 

“My hope is we can just pass it without anybody objecting to it, especially since the administration is already claiming they don’t need it — they’re not going to do that,” Rubio said, referring to the administration saying that federal funds won’t go toward crack pipes. 

Leadership on Wednesday began the formal process of trying to find out if any senator would object to quick passage of Rubio’s bill. Thune predicted it will ultimately pass but said Rubio was in talks with Democrats to work out the details.  

“I think that’s going to happen. They’re still negotiating some final language,” Thune said. 

Tags Ben Ray Lujan Continuing resolution Debbie Stabenow Dianne Feinstein government funding Joe Biden John Thune Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Mark Kelly Mike Lee Mike Rounds Ted Cruz

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