Senate passes bill to avert government shutdown

The Senate on Thursday passed a bill to avert a government shutdown ahead of a Friday night deadline, sending the legislation to President Biden’s desk for a signature.

Senators voted 65-27 on the bill, which funds the government through March 11 at current levels. The bill now goes to Biden, who is expected to sign it, after passing the House last week.

“We have kept the government open. It took some work, especially when the Senate rules lend themselves to delay and obstruction. Still, I thank Senators Leahy and Shelby, as well as Leader McConnell, for helping us get this done,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, referring to Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

“To have allowed the government to close would have caused undue hardship for millions of blameless Americans,” Schumer added. 

The bill, known as a continuing resolution (CR), buys lawmakers roughly three more weeks to try to work out a mammoth deal that would fund the government through the end of September.

The Senate’s passage of the funding bill comes after a days-long drama as senators tried to get a deal that would clear a path for the legislation. Because of the Senate’s rules, and the looming deadline, they needed buy-in from all 100 members to speed up the bill to meet the deadline.

Senators spent days haggling over what amendments would get votes. In the end they agreed on three: Two related to Biden’s vaccine mandates and a third from Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) on balancing the budget.

Another amendment from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that would block federal funding for schools and child care centers that require coronavirus vaccination failed, along with one from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and other GOP senators to defund vaccine requirements for medical workers, military personnel, federal employees and contractors for the length of the CR. 

Despite ultimately agreeing on what amendments would be included, the Senate was stuck in limbo for hours on Thursday because of a basic problem: Math.

The chamber started the day with two GOP senators absent, Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), along with three Democratic senators: Sens. Ben Ray Luján (Calif.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Mark Kelly (Ariz.).

That meant if the Senate had voted on the amendments on Thursday, or even Wednesday when Graham was the only GOP senator missing, the vaccine proposals would have had enough support to get added into the government funding bill.

Any changes to the continuing resolution would force it to go back to the House, which is in the middle of a two-week recess and where Democrats would likely balk over quickly passing a bill that defunds Biden’s vaccine rules.

Cruz and Lee sought to take advantage of the Democratic absences, urging their colleagues to stay in town in order to win the votes on the vaccine amendments. Cruz said that “NO REPUBLICAN SENATOR should leave town this afternoon.” 

“Schumer is panicking right now because Dems WILL LOSE THE VOTE on my amendment & @SenMikeLee amendment to BLOCK BIDEN’s VACCINE MANDATES & BLOCK MANDATES ON KIDS. The only way Dems win the vote is if Rs skip town,” he tweeted.

But GOP leadership indicated that they thought the logjam would eventually work itself out because enough Republican senators — eager to start their one-week break out of Washington, D.C. — would leave. In addition to Burr and Graham, GOP Sens. James Inhofe (Okla.) and Mitt Romney (Utah) missed the votes on the vaccine mandate amendments.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, predicted that the math for passing the CR without amendments would eventually work out because of “natural attrition.”

“There’s the Munich Security Conference and those folks are leaving later this afternoon. So, you know, at some point it’ll ultimately resolve itself, if it isn’t resolved some other way,” he said.

Senators also negotiated for days over a bill from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to block federal funding from going toward crack pipes and other drug paraphernalia. Rubio warned that he would block quick passage of the CR unless there was a deal to get a vote on his bill.

The issue spun up last week out of reports from conservative media that the Department of Health and Human Services was providing pipes for smoking crack as part of a harm reduction program. The Biden administration has dismissed the report as incorrect, and they’ve also been fact-checked by organizations including The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) had initially had a hold on the CR but dropped it earlier this week after she “received an answer in writing from the Health and Human Services Secretary committing that no taxpayer funding will be used to fund crack pipes.”

But Leahy blocked quick passage of Rubio’s bill, arguing that it went further than crack pipes, which has gotten the bulk of the public focus, and that the Senate needed to move on to passing the CR.

“We actually have to go to the CR now. … A war is about to start in Ukraine in all likelihood, and what we’re saying is we will start putting all of these things, so the government will have to shut down tomorrow night and we can stand there and Putin can say, why should I listen to them?” Leahy asked. 

But Rubio said on Thursday that he wasn’t holding up the continuing resolution over his bill.

“This has nothing to do with a continuing resolution. The reason we’re not voting on the continuing resolution is there’s a lot of people who are not here,” Rubio said. “That’s why I took this opportunity to offer my bill.” 

Rubio had narrowed his bill since he introduced it with Manchin last week. The revised bill dropped the inclusion of sterile needles and syringes and instead would prevent funds in a substance disorder program included in last year’s coronavirus relief bill from being used to “procure, supply, or distribute pipes or cylindrical objects that are used to smoke or inhale illicit narcotics.”

“You see what the problem is here. They don’t plan to send a crack pipe. They are sending a mouth piece, which is a straw-looking thing that you attach to the crack pipe,” Rubio said. “I just don’t think the federal government should be paying for that. I think most people would agree and be surprised.”

Updated at 7:43 p.m.

Tags Ben Ray Lujan Charles Schumer Dianne Feinstein James Inhofe Jim Inhofe Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Thune Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Mark Kelly Marsha Blackburn Mike Braun Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Patrick Leahy Richard Burr Ted Cruz

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