Thu, January 20, 2022

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House passes stopgap spending bill, but path to avert shutdown remains unclear in the Senate


WASHINGTON - House lawmakers on Thursday adopted a bipartisan bill to fund the government into early next year, but a Republican revolt in the Senate against President Joe Bidens vaccine policies still threatened to grind key federal agencies and programs to a halt.

The 221-to-212 nearly party-line vote in the House marked an important development if lawmakers hope to stave off a shutdown that is set to occur at midnight Friday. But its fate in the Senate seemed in great doubt, as Republicans doubled down in opposition to its swift passage with just over 24 hours before the crucial fiscal deadline.

For the second day in a row, a group of Republicans led by Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas threatened to hold up the government funding measure in protest of a presidential directive that orders large employers to require coronavirus vaccines for workers or implement comprehensive testing programs. Even though many public health experts see such policies as critical to combating the pandemic, the GOP lawmakers charged that Biden's mandates are unconstitutional and threaten Americans' rights and jobs.

"We have seen in the course of this pandemic Democrats being very comfortable with being petty tyrants and decreeing that you must obey their medical mandates," said Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has played a lead role in prompting at least one shutdown in the past.

The GOP blockade created significant political headaches for Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who endorsed the bipartisan funding deal earlier in the day. Only with the support of every chamber lawmaker can the Senate advance the spending resolution before midnight Friday - otherwise a shutdown into early next week is all but guaranteed.

Republicans including Marshall and Cruz did signal Thursday they might be open to an agreement to speed up the clock. Seeking to wield their influence ahead of a critical fiscal deadline, they each said they would be open to allowing the funding bill to proceed expediently in exchange for a vote on an amendment that would defund federal enforcement of Biden's vaccine and testing policies.

Yet Democratic and Republican leaders by Thursday evening declined to say whether they are willing to permit such an amendment, which conservatives have said they want to be set at a 51-vote threshold for passage. Adding to the political uncertainty, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., unexpectedly expressed an openness to supporting such a GOP-led amendment on vaccines, even though he opposed a similar effort offered by Republicans earlier this fall. That vote had occurred before the president announced his vaccine-and-testing policy targeting private businesses.

"I've been very supportive of a mandate for federal government, for military, for all the people who work on a government payroll," Manchin said. "I've been less enthused about it in the private sector. So we're working through all that."

The Senate jostling only raised the odds that the country could barrel into a short-term shutdown this weekend, an outcome that both parties have insisted for days they do not actually want. The growing possibility even prompted Biden to engage Senate leaders directly Thursday, after which he told reporters he thinks a shutdown will not occur.

"We have everything in place to be able to make sure there is not a shutdown," Biden said.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, some Republicans appeared frustrated by the political predicament created by members of their own party - especially since the funding bill has the votes necessary to pass.

"We know ultimately we're going to fund the government," said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the chamber's appropriations panel and one of the architects of the new funding deal.

In the process, Shelby said lawmakers faced an urgent political choice: "Do we do it before midnight [Friday]? Or do we stretch it out a few days and get the same result."

Washington is no stranger to government shutdowns, though each one is different in its scope, duration and the number of Americans it affects. For the most part, many federal operations continue during a funding lapse: Social Security and Medicare benefits do not halt, the Postal Service continues delivering mail, and military functions can proceed.

At times, though, the disruptions can prove significant. National parks often close, though the Trump administration tried to keep them open during a lengthy shutdown two years ago in manner that some budget experts said violated federal law. Passport applications can be delayed, and foreign embassies can curtail services. Federal agencies shutter many services deemed nonessential, sometimes delaying things such as tax filings and passport applications.

For many workers, meanwhile, the implications can be severe. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are often sent home or forced to work without pay. Those furloughs and other consequences may not rear their heads in the event the shutdown only occurs into a weekend, but the disruptions could prove more troublesome for families and businesses in the event that it drags on for an extended period of time.

With these consequences in mind, Democrats and Republicans began Thursday on a positive political note, brandishing a new funding deal. Known as a continuing resolution, it is set to cover federal operations into Feb. 18 - at which point lawmakers either must adopt another short-term deal or complete their work on roughly a dozen longer-term appropriations bills that fund the government for the remainder of fiscal 2022.

Lawmakers also included as part of the stopgap an additional $7 billion to assist Afghan evacuees. But they generally did not address a slew of unresolved policy issued that they had hoped to tackle as part of the continuing resolution, a reflection of the tense talks that delayed a vote on government funding for days.

"While I wish it were earlier, this agreement allows the appropriations process to move forward toward a final funding agreement which addresses the needs of the American people," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the leader of the House Appropriations Committee.

Shelby later offered his own blessings: "I'm pleased that we have finally reached an agreement on the continuing resolution. Now we must get serious about completing [fiscal 2022] bills."

Those fights entering February are likely to be fierce, as Democrats hope to deliver on Biden's budgetary goals, spending greater sums in areas including health and education, while Republicans hope to whittle down those amounts and devote more resources to the Pentagon. Democrats and Republicans also have squared off on a host of policy items, including the fate of the Hyde Amendment, which blocks federal funding for abortion - a provision Democrats hope to scrap despite unwavering GOP objections.

For now, though, House leaders on Thursday adopted the short-term resolution after a brief debate. Taking to the chamber floor, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., blasted the GOP for failing to provide "any help" toward funding the government until the fiscal year that ends in September.

"This is a result of the inability of the Congress to work," he said.

House Republican leaders, meanwhile, encouraged their members to oppose the spending stopgap in a move that threatened to inch the country closer to a shutdown. In doing so, they argued that Democrats had failed to negotiate because they spent too much time trying to advance Biden's broader economic agenda. All but one - Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., - later opposed the bill.

"This government should be shut down," said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., citing a need to control the deficit only days after she said denying federal funding would thwart the president's vaccine policy and stall Democrats' agenda. "You want to know why it should be shut down? Because the people in here. The people in here cannot control themselves."

While the House ultimately muscled through GOP objections, the Senate soon found itself staring down a lengthier, more treacherous fight - chiefly as conservatives raised new objections around vaccines.

Speaking from the well of the chamber, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, blasted Biden's vaccine-and-testing policies targeting companies as unconstitutional. He slammed Schumer specifically, stressing that conservatives for weeks had made clear to the majority leader that they planned to push an effort to defund the mandates as part of the debate over federal funding.

"I don't want to shut down the government," Lee said. "The only thing I want to shut down is Congress funding enforcement of an immoral, unconstitutional vaccine mandate."

Schumer, for his part, expressed his hope earlier Thursday that "cooler heads will prevail on the other side." He touted the bipartisan work that had yielded the new deal to fund the government until February, adding of the potential for obstruction: "If there is a shutdown, it will be a Republican, anti-vaccine shutdown."

McConnell, meanwhile, insisted that dissenting lawmakers would eventually fall into line. "We're not going to shut the government down," he told Fox News. "That makes no sense for anyone. Almost no one on either side thinks that's a good idea."

Published : December 03, 2021

By : The Washington Post