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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is shown on Capitol Hill on Nov. 30, 2021 in Washington.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is shown on Capitol Hill on Nov. 30, 2021 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government on Wednesday teetered one step closer to a potential shutdown, as a number of Republicans seized on a fast-approaching fiscal deadline to mount fresh opposition to President Joe Biden’s vaccine and testing mandates.

The emerging conservative campaign quickly divided GOP lawmakers, enraged congressional Democrats and threatened to unravel days of delicate bipartisan talks on Capitol Hill, just three days before a current federal spending agreement is set to expire.

“We’re opposed to the mandate,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. “We don’t want the federal government to be able to fund them in any way shape or form.”

Under Biden’s directive, issued earlier this year, private businesses that employ more than 100 workers must require vaccines or implement a comprehensive testing strategy. The president has imposed similar policies targeting federal employees and military service members, hoping to bring to heel a pandemic that has already killed more than 780,000 Americans.

But Biden’s approach has drawn a slew of legal challenges still playing out in federal courts, while prompting a fierce, vocal reaction among Republicans on Capitol Hill, who see the mandate as unconstitutional. GOP lawmakers have launched repeated legislative salvos to try to defund or eliminate it, only to be stymied so far in the House and Senate, where they are outnumbered by Democrats.

Despite the long political odds, a group of 11 Republicans led by Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas issued its most recent threat in early November, promising at the time to use every tool at its disposal, including by holding up the next federal funding bill. Nearly a month later, some of those same GOP lawmakers on Wednesday signaled they are ready to carry out their ultimatum, raising the distinct possibility that the chamber might not be able to act in time to prevent a government shutdown.

“I think we should use the leverage we have to fight against what are illegal, unconstitutional and abusive mandates from a president and an administration that knows they are violating the law,” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas told reporters.

The GOP opposition reflected conservatives’ still-intensifying push to turn the pandemic into a political cudgel, much as they have fought over the past year against masking requirements, social distancing restrictions and other public health policies. Their latest salvo came on the very day when the Biden administration announced the first known U.S. case of a new, concerning coronavirus variant knows as omicron.

The Republican push quickly drew sharp rebukes among Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York. Taking to the chamber floor to open the day’s debate, Schumer said the two sides are making “progress” in their talks — but he still lamented the possibility that Republicans might bring the government to a halt.

“I hope they see the light quickly and not cause a needless Republican government shutdown,” he said.

Even some Republicans remained uneasy about the idea. Exiting a private party lunch, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said there was “a lot of discussions about our alternatives and consequences,” highlighting the potential that the strategy could backfire politically.

“I don’t think shutdowns benefit people, like some folks think they do,” he said. “Because you’re not stopping, you’re just delaying and creating a lot of uncertainty in the interim.”

Marshall and other conservative lawmakers did signal they still could be open to a deal, potentially averting a short-term shutdown. They appeared open to allowing debate to proceed, provided they can have a vote on an amendment to terminate funding for Biden’s vaccine and testing mandates. A similar attempt to quash the vaccine rules failed earlier this fall.

For now, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declined to discuss his party’s internal thinking. But, he told reporters earlier in the day: “I think we’re going to be OK.”

The standoff nonetheless underscored the ever-intensifying partisan acrimony on Capitol Hill, threatening another round of tough talks and late nights in a year that has offered no shortage of them. And it elucidated the extent of the unease among some Republicans specifically around vaccine policy, even as experts widely agree that shots and boosters are the most effective way to prevent serious illness and death from the coronavirus.

Entering the week, Democrats and many Republicans initially thought they would fund the government with ease. Lawmakers aimed to pass a bill that would finance federal agencies and initiatives at least into late January, buying themselves more time to craft a series of longer-term measures that could sustain Washington through the rest of the fiscal year. Practically no one on Capitol Hill appeared to have an appetite for reviving the brinkmanship of years past, including a recent September showdown that nearly brought the government to a halt.

“We won’t shut down,” McConnell proclaimed at a news conference Tuesday.

By Wednesday, though, the very catastrophe that congressional leaders had strained so hard to avoid seemed to be a real possibility — offering a fresh glimpse of the rancor that has hamstrung Capitol Hill from fulfilling even the most basic duties of government in recent months.

For one thing, House and Senate leaders had yet to settle on the exact duration of their short-term funding measure. Democrats hoped to fund the government until sometime in late January, as they seek to keep pressure on Republicans to come to the table and negotiate a dozen longer-term appropriations bills that would enact Biden’s budgetary goals. Republicans, however, preferred to see funding extended until February or later, as they try to whittle down some of the president’s spending ambitions.

Other disputes surfaced over policy items included in the measure, known as a continuing resolution, including its provision of additional sums to help refugees from Afghanistan. With no resolution in sight, the House found itself unable to proceed with consideration of the measure on Wednesday as Democrats initially had planned.

The top Senate GOP appropriator, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, still expressed some measure of confidence that lawmakers could reach a compromise in time.

“I doubt we’ll have a shutdown,” he said, “but you never know.”

The policy disputes could carry broad ramifications. Until negotiators can finalize a bill, the House can’t bring the funding stopgap to a vote. And without House action, the Senate generally cannot begin its lengthy debate process, either.

In some circumstances, the Senate still can move expediently, resolving by unanimous consent to cut its own deliberations short. But some Republicans have shown little interest in speeding up the clock, even though the chamber is poised to approve the short-term spending measure eventually anyway.

The delays raise the specter for a shutdown beginning midnight Friday and carrying into the weekend, which might have little demonstrable effect on most Americans. A similar fiscal stalemate in 2018, for example, prevented some trash collection at national parks and affected some federal workers’ phones. Yet every hour of obstruction in the days ahead threatens to push the fight further into next week, when a temporary shutdown would carry more dire effects, perhaps furloughing millions of federal workers.

The mere prospect of such a shutdown infuriated Democrats, who blasted the GOP on Wednesday as the government is grappling with the arrival of a new, potentially more dangerous coronavirus variant.

“Totally irresponsible,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. “It’s just amazing to me. Hundreds of thousands of people have died — we’re getting close to 800,000 — and for them to even consider something like that is completely irresponsible.”

Republicans, however, showed scant willingness to back down. Marshall, for one, signaled he and his colleagues would not be willing to agree to speed up the Senate debate unless Congress cancels funding to carry out Biden’s vaccine and testing policy. He later told reporters another amendment vote is “something we would be willing to talk about.”

“We’ll see,” he said. “It’s a long time between now and Friday, I think. But I think at a minimum, it deserves a 50-person vote. I think it’s very germane. And again, this should be about, is Senator Schumer willing to shut down the economy over this?”

In taking their early stand, the GOP lawmakers’ obstruction echoed earlier demands from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who took to Twitter this weekend to encourage her party to let the government run out of money as a way to “STOP the vaccine mandates.” By Wednesday, the conservative House Freedom Caucus sent its own message to McConnell, urging him in a letter to “deny timely passage” of the spending measure unless it blocks funding for vaccine and testing mandates.

But the GOP strategy also appeared to leave even some of the party’s own lawmakers uneasy.

“It’s true that I do not support a vaccine mandate,” said Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota. “The question is, what’s the most appropriate way to respond? I think, in this particular case, I am not signing the letter that’s being sent out. I think there’s a better way to do it.”

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