House sets up Senate shutdown showdown

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(The Hill) – The House on Thursday voted to pass a short-term spending bill to fund the government through mid-February, as lawmakers work quickly to avert a shutdown on Friday.

The House voted 221-212 to pass the continuing resolution, which would allow the government to remain funded at the previous year’s fiscal levels through Feb. 18 until lawmakers clinch a deal on a larger, bipartisan deal.

Only one Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) supported the bill, which now goes to the Senate. A number of conservative GOP lawmakers have sought to tie the legislation to a push to defund President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccinate-or-test mandate for large employers.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) criticized the Republican-led push ahead of the vote on Thursday afternoon, claiming those behind the effort wanted to shut down “science.”

“How do they explain to the public that they’re shutting down government because they don’t want people to get vaccinated?” Pelosi said at a press briefing in the Capitol.

House Democrats were able to swiftly pass the bill despite Republican opposition, but the bill’s path to passage in the evenly split Senate is not yet guaranteed. The bill will need at least 60 votes to clear the upper chamber’s procedural hurdles, and any one senator could delay it.

A handful of Senate Republicans have vowed to hold up the spending bill — risking a shutdown on Friday at midnight when government funding is set to lapse — unless they get a vote on defunding Biden’s vaccinate-or-test mandate. 

The leaders of that effort, including Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), indicated they’d be satisfied with a vote on defunding the mandates to fully vaccinate or be tested, as long as it only requires a simple majority to be adopted.

Marshall previously secured a vote on a similar amendment to prohibit funding for enforcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates as part of the last stopgap bill to avert a shutdown in late September. But it would have required at least 60 votes and failed along party lines.

Centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) voted against Marshall’s amendment in September. But on Thursday, Manchin declined to tell reporters how he would vote on the latest proposal.

“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.

While Senate Republicans are strongly opposed to the vaccine mandate, many are not on board with the strategy to risk a potential government shutdown over the issue.

A shutdown, even if only for a few days, would come as the world is grappling with the new omicron variant that has concerned scientists due to its mutations that could potentially make the virus more contagious. 

Republicans also pointed to three court rulings in recent days that halted the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates for health care workers and federal contractors as evidence that forcing a shutdown would be pointless. 

“I don’t think shutting down the government over this issue is going to get an outcome. It would only create chaos and uncertainty so I don’t think that’s the best vehicle to get this job done,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a Fox News interview on Thursday.

McConnell also downplayed the possibility of a shutdown in the interview, saying: “We’re not going to shut the government down.”

House GOP leaders, meanwhile, formally urged their rank-and-file to vote against the bill. A notice sent to House GOP offices accused Democrats of refusing “to engage in meaningful negotiations with Republicans” over spending levels and criticized the rushed process of considering the stopgap bill on Thursday. 

Notably, the notice from House Minority Whip Steve Scalise’s (R-La.) office did not mention the push to defund the Biden administration’s vaccinate-or-test mandates.

The bill’s passage in the House on Thursday afternoon comes months after Congress passed legislation in the eleventh hour to stave off another potential shutdown in late September, when fiscal year 2021 ended. 

Both sides of the aisle have struggled in recent months to break a stalemate in spending talks for a larger bipartisan deal, with lingering disagreements in areas like defense.

The House has so far passed nine of the 12 appropriations bills to fund the government for fiscal 2022. The Senate has yet to take up any of the bills on the floor, however, as Republican and Democratic leadership have also failed to reach an agreement on an overall topline.

Some House and Senate Republicans, who would rather keep spending at levels established under former President Trump, pushed for a longer stopgap measure lasting into February or the early spring. But there are others who wanted an earlier date to keep pressure on lawmakers to figure out spending soon. 

As the House Rules Committee took up the stopgap bill on Thursday morning, Ranking Member Tom Cole (R-Okla.) expressed concern with the new February deadline, as opposed to a December deadline proposed by House Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.).

“I actually agreed with the chairwoman. I liked the December deadline … Let’s sit down and get at it,” Cole, who also serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said.

“I’m a little concerned with the February deadline because around here, deadlines are alarm clocks. The longer you put them back, the less likely you are to get to a result,” he added.

Democrats, eager to put a bigger stamp on federal spending with control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, had pushed for a shorter funding patch lasting later into December or January. 

After days of haggling between congressional leaders, both parties ultimately settled on Feb. 18 to give time for negotiations on a long-term omnibus package lasting through the end of the fiscal year next September.

“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,” DeLauro said.

A government shutdown lasting only a few days merely because of Senate procedural issues would be less disruptive than the last one, which went from December 2018 until January 2019, the longest on record. But it would mean hundreds of thousands of federal employees would be furloughed, while others deemed “essential” would have to continue working without pay. An extensive shutdown would also result in government services, such as national parks or passport applications, becoming delayed or unavailable.

The difficult negotiations to avoid a government shutdown, one of lawmakers’ most basic tasks, foreshadows what’s likely to be a bruising few weeks in Congress.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned last month that the nation has until around Dec. 15 before it defaults on its debt, putting pressure on Democrats and Republicans who have been divided for months over how to tackle the issue. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and McConnell have been negotiating over how to raise the nation’s borrowing limit, but it’s not yet clear how they will resolve the standoff.

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