Finance

Senate dodges initial December crisis with last-minute deal

The Senate averted a government shutdown that would have thrown President Biden's agenda into limbo when Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) struck a deal late Thursday with conservative Senate Republicans to fund the government until February. 

The last-minute deal gives senators some hope that Congress isn't completely dysfunctional and that another imminent standoff over raising the nation's debt limit can be resolved in the same way without much carnage.

In the end, senators on both sides of the aisle realized that a government shutdown - even a temporary one - would anger the public and both parties would wind up taking the blame.

Some lawmakers hope their colleagues remember this lesson over the next two weeks as Congress tackles the more controversial task of raising the federal debt limit.

"I was worried that it would happen, but I really felt that experience has taught us some lessons here, that absolutely no one wins," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) of a possible government shutdown.

"Default, government shutdown, all the disasters that occur are disasters that the American people blame on everyone. There's no winner," he added. 

Schumer seemed relieved to announce Thursday night that a crisis had been averted.

"I'm happy to let the American people know the government remains open," he said on the floor with a smile on his face, getting some light applause from the few senators still in the chamber at 9:30 p.m.

Democrats privately conceded that a government shutdown was the last thing Biden needed when he's struggling with an approval rating in the low 40s and wrestling with the new threat posed by the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Schumer finally relented Thursday evening and gave in to demands from a small group of Senate conservatives that a vote be held on an amendment to defund Biden's vaccine mandate for large employers, an executive action that federal courts had already delayed. 

The Senate voted on a very similar amendment to the stopgap funding measure Congress passed in September and it was defeated on a 50-50 party-line vote. 

But that amendment was set at a 60-vote threshold and never had a real chance of passing, because it would have needed the support of 10 Democrats.

Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wanted a revote on the amendment, this time with only a simple majority needed to pass it.

Lee and his allies could have dragged out the debate on the stopgap funding measure until Friday, if they used all the dilatory procedural weapons in their arsenal.

That would have meant shutting down federal departments and agencies for a brief period, and the conservatives threatened to do just that to get a simple-majority vote on their amendment.

Marshall told reporters Thursday morning that "shutting down the government is worth saving the jobs in Kansas."

Lee thought the amendment had a good chance of being adopted by a simple majority, and centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) gave him hope Thursday by telling reporters that he was open to voting yes.

"I've been very supportive of a mandate for federal government, for military ... I've been less enthused about it in the private sector," Manchin said.

Lee told colleagues that he thought he could pick up at least one Democratic vote, which would have been a major victory and have made the Democratic-controlled House deal with the amended funding measure.

That put Schumer in a potentially tough spot, and he initially refused to capitulate to the conservatives' demands. 

"If every member of this chamber used the threat of a shutdown to secure concessions on their own interests, that would lead to chaos for the millions and millions of Americans who rely on a functioning government," he warned on the floor Wednesday.

But it turned into an easier call for the Democratic leader when it became clear that two Senate Republicans would have to miss the vote for personal reasons and that Democrats would have easily enough votes to defeat the amendment.

"Sen. Lee felt strongly that he had a shot at winning this if he could get a 50-50 vote, but we have people missing and the Democrats know that, and since people are missing that means that as long as Democrats keep their people here, they know it's going to be a 50-48 vote," said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). "It took the pressure off the Democrats so they could agree to it."

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said that Democrats knew they had the votes to win before Schumer announced that he would give Lee, Marshall and Cruz a vote on their amendment at a simple-majority threshold.

"Of course we have the votes. What do you think? We have absences, they have absences - we always take that into consideration," Durbin said.

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) missed the vote because he was out of town Wednesday and Thursday to attend the funeral of a family member, and Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) was in Tennessee to watch his son play in a state football championship.

Manchin ultimately voted against the Republican amendment, but released a statement Thursday evening announcing he would support a resolution sponsored by Republicans that would nullify Biden's vaccine mandate on employers under the Congressional Review Act. 

"In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and as the new Omicron variant emerges, I will not vote to shut down the government for purely political reasons. There is too much at stake for the American people. But let me be clear, I do not support any government vaccine mandate on private businesses," he said in a statement.

The resolution of the standoff after days of threats and recriminations left senators on both sides of the aisle relieved but exhausted. 

"I'm grateful my colleagues were able to avert [a] crisis and vote to keep the government funded. But it's tiring to keep playing this political football - the benefits of the elderly, vets and federal employees shouldn't be used as a bargaining chip," said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). 

Some senators expressed hope that the agreement was a good sign for the debt-limit negotiations between Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), which need to get wrapped up by a Dec. 15 deadline.

"I think so," said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) about Schumer and McConnell announcing a deal on the debt limit.

McConnell told reporters on Tuesday that "we won't shut down." He has also tried to take the prospect of a credit default off the table.

Capito said the lack of a public clash between McConnell and Schumer ahead of the debt-limit deadline is a promising indication that Congress will avert another crisis later this month. 

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