Shutdown Threat From GOP Senators Hangs Over Deal to Keep Government Open

Shutdown Threat From GOP Senators Hangs Over Deal to Keep Government Open

Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Taking a big step to avoid a looming government shutdown, Congressional leaders on Thursday announced that they have reached an agreement on a stopgap bill that would fund a variety of federal operations through mid-February. The House passed the continuing resolution that emerged from the agreement in a 221-212 vote late in the afternoon, with just one Republican crossing party lines to support the measure.

But lawmakers aren’t out of the woods quite yet. A handful of conservative Republicans in the Senate are still threatening to delay the vote on the resolution as part of an effort to defund President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for private businesses, raising the risk of a government shutdown starting Friday at midnight, when the current short-term funding deal runs out.

Optimism about the deal: The stopgap funding measure would provide government funding at current levels through February 18, while providing an additional $7 billion for the resettlement of refugees from Afghanistan.

Leaders from both parties expressed confidence that the bill would pass through Congress and a shutdown would be avoided. “We’re not going to shut the government down,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said. “That makes no sense for anyone. Almost no one on either side thinks that’s a good idea.”

President Biden was also optimistic. “We have everything in place to be able to make sure there is not a shutdown,” he said. “There is a plan in place unless somebody decides to be totally erratic, and I don't think that will happen,” he added.

But a rebellion brews: A small group of hardline conservatives in the Senate – including Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT), Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Roger Marshall (R-KS) – continued to push for an amendment to the continuing resolution that would defund federal oversight of the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for private companies with more than 100 employees, which they say is unconstitutional and economically harmful. If their demand for such a vote is not met, one or more of the senators could delay the funding bill, making it impossible to pass by the midnight Friday deadline, resulting in a shutdown that could last several days.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Lee again condemned the vaccine mandate. “I don’t want to shut down the government,” he said. “The only thing I want to shut down is Congress funding enforcement of an immoral, unconstitutional vaccine mandate.”

Marshall claimed that his constituents strongly support his strategy. “My phone has blown up and continues to blow up and with the vaccine mandate issue, but not one Kansan has reached out to me to say, ‘Don't shut the government down,’” he said.

A possible solution: The hardliners say that a simple majority vote on their amendment to defund vaccination mandate enforcement would satisfy them. However, such a vote would be unusual, since it would normally require 60 votes to pass rather than 51, and that could be an issue for leaders in both parties.

“I've offered a very simple solution, a very reasonable solution. ... I just want to vote on one amendment," Lee said. “A simple up-or-down, yes or no, a simple-majority vote. That's all I'm asking. ... We're providing every opportunity to avoid a shutdown,” he added.

The need for a simple majority could be an important factor, with conservative Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin declining to say whether he would back the Republican effort. Although Manchin voted in September against an amendment that sought to undo the vaccine mandate for federal employees, the mandate affecting private employees may be a different matter.

“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 Thursday.

Pelosi says they’ll get it done: Though Manchin left others guessing about how he would approach the issue, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) left little room for interpretation as far as her views are concerned. Slamming the hardline Republicans for supporting those who oppose Covid-19 vaccines, Pelosi decried their “double sense of irresponsibility” for rejecting both science and the duty to govern.

“This is so silly that we have people who are anti-science, anti-vaccination saying they're going to shut down government over that,” Pelosi said at her weekly press conference. “And you're asking me what's our message? Our message is that we have to respect governance, and we have to respect science, and that's what we are doing and we will pass this legislation," she added.

Pelosi said that she doesn’t think Republicans really want to shut down the government, and that she expects the continuing resolution to become law. “We will get it done, and we will get it done in a timely fashion,” she said.