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Congress thwarts shutdown after vaccine mandate clash

Congress averted a government shutdown Thursday night after Senate leaders mollified a group of Republicans who demanded a vote targeting President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate.

The Senate passed an 11-week stopgap spending bill in a 69-28 vote, sending the measure on for Biden’s signature. The legislation, known as a continuing resolution, will keep government funding at levels set almost a year ago, when Donald Trump was president.

Democratic leaders hope that patch will buy enough time to strike a bipartisan deal to fully fund the military and non-defense agencies at updated levels. GOP lawmakers, however, have expressed a desire to stick the majority party with Trump-era totals if Democrats don’t cave from the outset to a series of Republican funding conditions.

Final passage followed a deal late Thursday to appease conservatives who demanded a vote on an amendment from Sens. Roger Marshall of Kansas and Mike Lee of Utah, aimed at defunding Biden’s vaccination requirements on U.S. businesses, the Pentagon and the federal workforce. That amendment ultimately fell 48-50.

“I am glad that in the end cooler heads prevailed,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor before the vote. “The government will stay open. And I thank the members of this chamber for walking us back from the brink of an avoidable, needless and costly shutdown.”

The Senate voted on the vaccine mandate amendment with a simple majority threshold, when amendments typically need 60 votes to pass. Sen. Joe Manchin voted against it, though some senators had speculated the West Virginia Democrat might side with Republicans on the amendment. Republican Sens. John Thune of South Dakota and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee missed the vote.

“This issue is not going away,” Lee said before the vote on his amendment, stressing that workers will lose their jobs over the requirements. “We shouldn’t be doing this. Deep down we all know what’s right.”

The sudden Senate rush of activity, after days of dysfunction that threatened a brief weekend shutdown, comes after the House passed the stopgap spending measure Thursday afternoon to keep the government funded at current levels for more than two more months.

Earlier in the day, senators in both parties privately doubted Schumer would allow Lee to get his amendment on his terms. But in a brief interview, Lee sounded a different note. “I think they will. I do,” Lee said. “We just want a vote.”

Several Republican senators publicly lamented the shutdown ultimatum their colleagues waged, arguing that the effort was pointless considering Biden’s vaccine mandate is getting crushed in court.

“What’s the point? The American people have been through a lot … and I just don’t think they need to be scared further through a shutdown, ” Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) said Thursday. “If there is a shutdown, it will be very short. But I just still think the flame’s not worth the candle.”

Earlier Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi tore into the Senate GOP push to halt government funding over the vaccine mandate and said House Democrats would not entertain their amendment push.

“If you think that’s how we’re going to keep government open, forget that,” Pelosi said.

The House’s passage vote came hours after Democrats announced the eleventh-hour stopgap funding deal with Republicans on Thursday morning, following days of late-night talks as both parties scrambled to prevent Congress from stumbling past the deadline.

Government funding will now run through the third week of February — weeks later than Democrats wanted — but House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said her party “prevailed” in securing a $7 billion increase to pay for resettling Afghan refugees.

Both parties say the skirmish over the short-term funding fix was far simpler than the brutal fight they predict over Congress’ full-year spending. Democrats are eager to pass a government funding bill that can finally include Biden’s priorities — the first such spending bill of his presidency. Without it, the federal government has continued to run on spending levels established under Trump.

There’s also the problem of billions of dollars in looming cuts to Medicare and farm aid programs that could take effect next year — which the deal reached Thursday does not address. Those scheduled funding decreases are a consequence of the budget reconciliation process used to pass Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package back in March.

Congress typically avoids such cuts with bipartisan ease, but Republicans haven’t been inclined to help while the majority party pursues big spending plans without GOP support. Democrats have pledged to find another legislative vehicle to address the drastic funding reductions next year. But they will still need assistance from at least 10 Senate Republicans, setting up another possible showdown as the GOP focuses on spending and inflation concerns ahead of the 2022 midterms.

Senate Republicans have openly indicated that they don’t plan to make resolving any of those obstacles easy for Democrats, particularly the upcoming battle over a bill to set government spending levels for the rest of the fiscal year.

In a statement, Sen. Richard Shelby made clear that the Senate GOP will enter full-year funding talks with the same priorities that have complicated discussions for months. The Alabama Republican, who serves as his party’s top Senate appropriator, insists that Democrats buckle upfront to GOP policy demands for the funding bills, such as continuing the longtime ban on federal funding for abortions.

“If that doesn’t happen, we’ll be having this same conversation in February,” Shelby cautioned.

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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