House, Senate leaders announce government funding deal as they race to avert shutdown
WASHINGTON — House and Senate leaders on Thursday announced they had clinched a deal to fund the federal government into next year, even as an intensifying GOP-led revolt over President Joe Biden’s vaccine policies threatened to grind the government to a halt anyway.
The day began on a positive political note, after top Democrats and Republicans brandished a new, bipartisan pact that would sustain federal agencies and operations into mid-February. If passed by both chambers of Congress, the measure would narrowly avert a shutdown that is set to occur at midnight Friday.
But the prospects of an easy, swift resolution soon appeared in doubt. The House set up a vote on the funding stopgap on Thursday afternoon, but the Senate remained paralyzed by partisan bickering, as conservatives mounted a fresh political stand against the Biden administration’s response to the coronavirus.
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 vaccines or implement comprehensive testing programs. Even though 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 GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has played a lead role in prompting at least one shutdown in the past.
To rush the bill to the Senate floor and adopt it by midnight Friday, chamber leaders need full support from Marshall, Cruz and others. Seeking to wield their sizable influence, they have said in recent days they are open to a compromise — allowing the funding bill to proceed expediently in exchange for a vote on an amendment that would defund federal enforcement of the vaccine and testing policies.
Yet Democratic and Republican leaders by midday Thursday had not signaled if they were 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 signaled 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 prior to the president announcing 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 prompted Biden to engage Senate leaders directly on Thursday, after which he told reporters he still believes a shutdown would 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 even appeared frustrated by the political predicament created by 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 appropriation 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 tomorrow? Or do we stretch it out a few days and get the same result.”
There have been numerous government shutdowns in the past, though each one is different. For the most part, many government operations continue during a funding lapse. Social Security and Medicare benefits do not halt, and the Postal Service continues delivering mail. Military operations continue as well.
But there are major disruptions during a shutdown. National parks often close, though the Trump administration tried to keep them open during a lengthy shutdown several years ago in a manner that some budget experts said violated federal law. Passport applications can be delayed, and foreign embassies can curtail services. Federal agencies halt many services deemed nonessential, and this can have an impact on tax filings, among other things.
Also, hundreds of thousands of federal employees are sent home without pay during a shutdown, and hundreds of thousands of others can be required to continue working without pay. Shutdowns that drag on for extended periods of time can be extremely disruptive to households and even businesses.
The new funding proposal, known as a continuing resolution, covers 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 the 2022 fiscal year.
Democrats and Republicans also included as part of the stopgap another $7 billion for assisting 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 year 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.
In the meantime, House leaders took the first steps toward bringing the short-term funding measure to the floor for a vote Thursday that Democrats are expected to pass. But the Senate found itself staring down a lengthy debate, since speeding up the process to pass the bill by midnight Friday requires the support of a small crop of Republicans who are still refusing to relent.
Taking to the chamber floor, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, blasted Biden’s vaccine and testing policies targeting companies as unconstitutional. He slammed Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., stressing that conservatives for weeks had made clear they planned to push an effort to defund the mandates as part of the debate over federal funding into next year.
“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.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., 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.”
The Washington Post’s Tyler Pager contributed to this report.