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Government Shutdown Suddenly Looking More Likely

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By Yuval Rosenberg and Michael Rainey
Wednesday, December 1, 2021
Welcome to December, which will be packed with opportunities for Congress to display just how dysfunctional it has become. Lawmakers are off to a depressingly strong start on that front, as conservatives opposed to President Biden’s vaccine mandate threaten to force a brief government shutdown even as some of their GOP colleagues object to the strategy. Some Senate Republicans have also delayed a vote on the massive annual National Defense Authorization Act as they push for more votes on amendments, though lawmakers are reportedly moving toward a deal that could allow them to pass the bill Thursday.

Here's what’s going on:

Government Shutdown Suddenly Looking More Likely

So much for a quick and easy fix on government funding.

The odds of a brief government shutdown rose sharply Wednesday after a group of Republican lawmakers who oppose a Covid-19 vaccine mandate threatened to delay a stopgap funding bill.

Conservatives in both the House and Senate were pushing a plan to block a bill that would keep the government open for a few more weeks after funding runs out on Friday, with the goal of removing funds that would pay for the vaccine and testing mandate imposed by the Biden administration.

The delay could force a government shutdown lasting at least through the weekend.

Opposing the mandate: President Joe Biden issued a directive in September requiring companies with more than 100 employees to require vaccines for their workers or set up a weekly testing program by January. Many Republicans say the directive is unconstitutional. Republican Sens. Mike Lee (UT), Ted Cruz (TX), Roger Marshall (KS) and Ron Johnson (WI) have all spoken out against the Biden policy. “We’re opposed to the mandate,” Johnson said Wednesday. “We don’t want the federal government to be able to fund them in any way, shape or form.”

In the House, the conservative Freedom Caucus wrote a letter to McConnell asking him to deploy “all procedural tools at his disposal to deny timely passage” of the bill. And Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) expressed support for the hardline senators’ strategy. “Don't fund a government that is tyrannically forcing people to get a vaccine that they don't want to get,” he told Fox News.

Delaying the vote: Democrats say the conservatives' potential move would upend negotiations they hoped would produce a continuing resolution, or CR, that would fund the government into early 2022. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) summarized the state of play Wednesday: “We’re making good progress on the CR. I hope a small group of Republicans don’t choose obstruction and try to shut down the government,” he said. “We need to come together and keep the government open.”

Not all Republicans back Lee’s approach, with some citing a recent court ruling that has suspended the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate. “I just don’t quite understand the strategy or the play of leverage for a mandate that’s been stayed by 10 courts,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) said. “I want the vaccine mandates lifted, but I don’t think the [spending bill] is the tool to do it. For all practical purposes the mandates weaken every single day.”

Other Republicans are optimistic that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) can keep his caucus together and prevent a shutdown. But the small group of GOP senators led by Lee may defy McConnell and object to unanimous consent on the bill, kicking off a round of procedural delays that could take as long as nine days to work through, according to The Hill, though most observers expect the potential shutdown to last just through the weekend.

One possible deal being discussed to avoid a delay is for Schumer to allow the Senate to vote on an amendment to the bill that would prohibit the vaccine mandate from taking effect, with the requirement for passage lowered to a simple majority (51) rather than 60. That vote would likely be largely symbolic, though, even if Republican lawmakers can persuade conservative Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin (WV) to support the amendment, since President Biden is unlikely to sign the amendment into law.

The bottom line: There isn’t much appetite for a government shutdown, but a handful of hardline Republicans may force the issue in their battle against vaccine mandates, possibly producing a government closure that lasts a few days.

Fact Check of the Day: Yellen Says the Build Back Better Act Is ‘Fully Paid For’

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told the Senate Banking Committee Tuesday that President Biden’s Build Back Better plan “is fully paid for, or even more than fully paid for. And CBO just completed a comprehensive review of it in which they found essentially the same thing.”

She went on to acknowledge that the official Congressional Budget Office score actually finds that the plan would add $367 billion to deficits through 2031, but noted that number did not include an estimated $207 billion in revenue from beefed up IRS enforcement — and that the Treasury Department estimates that the tax agency crackdown will generate a net $400 billion, which would lift the revenue generated by the Build Back Better bill above its costs.

Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler on Wednesday awarded Yellen “Two Pinocchios” (on a scale of zero to four) for her claim. “No one can accurately predict what will happen to tax collections after the IRS is suddenly flush with cash, personnel and new technology. The Treasury Department has grounds to dispute the CBO’s estimate,” he wrote. “But the fact remains that the CBO is regarded as a neutral arbiter, the official scorekeeper, and the rules on budget scorekeeping help the administration claim its plan is budget-neutral as much as it hurts it. Yellen cannot pick and choose what part of the CBO score she chooses to accept to claim that the CBO found that the Build Back Better bill is deficit-neutral.”

Quote of the Day

“This is a moment of extraordinary opportunity for improving health policy and improving the health coverage that people get.”

Stan Dorn, director of the National Center for Coverage Innovation at the advocacy group Families USA, in a New York Times article detailing how the Build Back Better Act would “represent the biggest step toward universal coverage since the passage of the Affordable Care Act.”

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