Lawmakers reach deal on spending bill, but hurdles remain. A handful of Senate Republicans are threatening a government shutdown as soon as midnight Friday amid a standoff over the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine-or-testing mandate for some workers.
Congressional leaders brokered an agreement Thursday on a stopgap spending bill to fund the government through mid-February. But getting it to the president’s desk before a Friday night deadline would require all 100 senators to consent to speeding up the Senate’s legislative clock.
The group of GOP senators have pledged to block that consent agreement unless they are granted a vote on an amendment to stop the vaccine mandate. If they maintain their position, a brief government shutdown is likely.
But the pause in government funding would likely last only a few days until the Senate is able to complete the mandatory hours of debate time. After going through the required time, the funding bill would likely be approved quickly, allowing the government to reopen.
It the shutdown lasts only a few days, it would be unlikely to significantly affect the operations of the government or require furloughs of federal employees. Still, even brief shutdowns add to the uncertainty of federal operations, and many senators, even when in the minority, are loathe to risk the embarrassment of Congress failing to live up to one of its most basic requirements.
“A few individual Republican senators appear determined to derail this important legislation, because of their opposition to the president’s life-saving vaccine guidelines, critical to healing our country in the middle of a pandemic,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “Let’s be clear: If there is a shutdown, it will be a Republican anti-vaccine shutdown.”
The group of Republicans, led by Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Roger Marshall of Kansas, say they warned weeks ago that they would not provide any help in enacting a bill that empowers the vaccination requirement. They said Schumer should have started the process days ago in order to go through the legislative hoops without their support.
“After running out the clock, knowingly, deliberatively, not coming to the table to negotiate, and ignoring our clear public position, Sen. Schumer is now accusing us of wanting to shut down the government because we refuse to help him cram through a bill we’ve already stated we’re against,” Lee said.
Republicans, with the support of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, are hoping to tap into the political opposition to the Biden administration’s vaccine requirements, which require a vaccination or weekly testing. In some cases, the courts have blocked enforcement of vaccine requirements for workers.
“A vaccine mandate is going to cause hundreds of thousands of Kansans to lose their job,” Marshall said of people in his home state. “This is about an economic shutdown. It’s not just about a government shutdown.”
Not all Republicans agree with the shutdown strategy. Republican leadership is backing the short-term funding plan, pointing to the roadblock in the courts. In addition, the Senate is expected to vote next week on a motion to block the mandate from taking effect.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) predicted on Fox News on Thursday that it has a “decent chance” of passing the Senate. While Biden can veto the measure, Republicans will consider the roll call vote a victory.
The White House has touted the vaccines as the path to ending the pandemic, particularly in the face of the country’s first case of the Omicron variant, detected in San Francisco.
Lee is demanding a vote on his amendment at a majority threshold. Because of the filibuster and its prolific use by both parties to block legislation, most legislation or amendments are held to a 60-vote threshold. It is unknown how a vaccine amendment vote would end up at the majority threshold in the closely divided Senate.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) didn’t rule out supporting the GOP amendment to defund the mandate.
“I’ve been very supportive of the mandate for federal government, for military, for all the people that work on government payroll,” he said Thursday. “I’ve been less enthused about it in the private sector.”
Brief government shutdowns have happened before, and often result from congressional leaders waiting until the last minute to broker an agreement and hoping that all senators consent to moving up the clock. Because it only takes one senator to block that agreement, individual lawmakers have occasionally taken up the powerful tool to make a point.
In 2018, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) prompted a brief shutdown over concerns with the deficit. More substantial shutdowns took place in 2013 over Obamacare and in 2018 over former President Trump’s border wall.
The House is expected to approve the spending bill on Thursday. From there, it would go to the Senate.
The spending agreement hatched by congressional leaders would keep funding at 2020 levels through Feb. 18. Democrats wanted a shorter amount of time because they don’t want to live under Trump-negotiated levels for longer than necessary. But to get around them, they would have to come to agreement with Republicans on new funding levels for the rest of the year.
The Kremlin voiced concern Thursday about a possible escalation of fighting in a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine as the U.S. issued a strong warning to Russia to stay away from Ukraine.
Ukrainian and Western officials have worried about a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine, fearing it could herald an invasion. Moscow has insisted it has no such intention and accused Ukraine and its Western backers of making up the claims.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken warned Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at their meeting in Stockholm on Thursday that “if Russia decides to pursue confrontation, there will be serious consequences,” adding that “the best way to avert a crisis is through diplomacy.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in Moscow that “the Ukrainian authorities’ aggressive and increasingly intensive provocative action on the line of contact” with pro-Russian separatists gives grounds for concern about a possible flare-up of hostilities. He said that recent statements from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials indicate that “the Ukrainian leadership doesn’t exclude a forceful scenario.”
“The probability of hostilities in Ukraine still remains high,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.
Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed separatist republic in Donetsk, said on Russian state television that he could turn to Moscow for military assistance if the region faces a Ukrainian attack.
Ukrainian officials have denied an intention to reclaim the rebel regions by force.
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Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted after meeting with Blinken in Stockholm that “we are closely working together on developing a comprehensive deterrence package, including severe economic sanctions, to demotivate Russia from further aggressive moves.”
Kuleba also talked with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell about “the need to deter Russia and speed up work on specific economic restrictions which will be able to hit the Russian economy should Moscow decide to launch a new stage of aggression against Ukraine.