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Senate Republicans threaten government shutdown over vaccine mandates

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A group of Senate Republicans is threatening to delay action on a spending bill needed to avert a lapse in federal funding on Friday unless it also bars enforcement of the Biden administration’s vaccine-and-testing mandate for large employers, heightening the threat of a government shutdown.

With Congress lagging on finalizing the dozen annual spending bills needed to keep the government running, there is broad agreement that lawmakers will need to pass a stopgap measure this week to stave off a shutdown.

But just two days before funding is set to lapse, Democrats and Republicans remain at odds over how long the temporary measure should stretch into 2022 and other details. Congressional leaders in both parties had publicly downplayed the chances of a shutdown, but they conceded Wednesday that the funding deadline has increased the leverage of lawmakers pressing their own agendas.

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“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,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader.

“It’s up to the leaders to make sure there’s not a shutdown — I’m making sure, and I think Leader McConnell wants to try to make sure, too,” he added, referring to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader.

On Tuesday, McConnell flatly said, “We won’t shut down.”

Still, the objections over the vaccine mandate have threatened already fraught bipartisan talks and raised the prospect of at least a temporary lapse in funding, presenting the first hiccup for Senate Democrats in a chaotic month. They are juggling efforts to fund the government, raise the debt ceiling, complete a hulking military policy bill and enact their marquee $2.2 trillion domestic policy legislation — all before Christmas Day.

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Republicans said the spending bill offered them their best chance to push back on vaccine requirements that President Joe Biden announced in November. They appeared to relish the political message they could send their constituents by forcing a government shutdown, even as the nation grapples with the emergence of the omicron variant.

“I think this is the fight — this is where we have the most leverage actually to accomplish stopping the mandate,” said Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas, one of the lead Republicans pushing for the provision. “I think that folks back home want to know how hard we’re fighting for them, that the jobs back home are as important as keeping the federal government open.”

The far-right House Freedom Caucus wrote to McConnell on Wednesday, asking him to use “all procedural tools at your disposal to deny timely passage” of the legislation.

The push presented a conundrum for McConnell, a survivor of polio who for months has made a point of championing coronavirus vaccines and pushing back against misinformation from other Republicans who have questioned their efficacy. And while several Republicans have railed against the mandates imposed by the Biden administration, some appeared wary of forcing a shutdown over the matter.

“I think the vast majority of Republicans would not like to see a shutdown, but I don’t think that would include everyone,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. “And all it takes is one person.”

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Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., declared that “a shutdown is just a useless pathway.”

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The stopgap legislation remained in limbo as lawmakers haggled over the end date and a provision averting billions of dollars in cuts to Medicare, subsidies and other programs. Plans to vote on the measure on Wednesday were delayed by a day, but lawmakers and aides insisted there was still time to avoid a lapse in funding.

“There is no interest in shutting the government down,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. “We will get to an endpoint.”

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Because the stopgap bill maintains existing funding, effectively freezing spending levels negotiated with the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Senate in 2020, Democrats are pressing to make it as short-lived as possible. But Republicans have pushed to extend the measure.

“I’d like February, March would suit me — April, May,” said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee. “I think it gives us more time to seriously sit down.”

Lawmakers were also debating additional spending provisions, including more funding for Afghan refugees. But even if an agreement is reached, the Senate will require unanimous support to waive a number of procedural steps and swiftly take up the legislation before the Friday deadline.

Without unanimous agreement, the process could drag through the weekend, forcing a brief shutdown that would quickly become dire for federal workers and agencies at the beginning of the week. Senate Republicans, with the strong backing of House Republicans, have threatened to prolong the debate unless the bill prohibits funding for a mandate that all large employers require their workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to weekly testing.

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“I have long said that I am not particularly invested in the timing of a given vote — whether it occurs a few hours earlier or a few hours later,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told reporters. “But I think we should use the leverage we have to fight against what are illegal, unconstitutional and abusive mandates.”

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Marshall offered an amendment in September to an earlier stopgap bill that would have barred funds from going toward the implementation and enforcement of the mandate, but it failed in the evenly divided Senate. Some Republicans signaled optimism that a similar amendment vote this week could pacify their colleagues.

The mandate, which the Biden administration had said would go into effect in January, has become ensnared in court challenges. In November, a federal appeals court kept a block on it in place and declared that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had overreached its authority in issuing it.

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Democrats criticized Republicans on Wednesday for threatening to shutter the government over a policy that is aimed at stemming the spread of the pandemic.

“The fact that they want to walk right up to a government shutdown over a public health issue should frighten the American public,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif. “That’s exactly what they’re advocating here.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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