So much for a quick and easy fix on government funding.
The odds of at least 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.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and a handful of other Republicans are reportedly discussing 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.
Lee’s strategy is reportedly backed by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Roger Marshall (R-KS) and Ron Johnson (R-WI), all of whom have 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 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 Lee’s 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.