House passes stopgap bill to fund government; Senate action in limbo

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- California) speaks at her weekly press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
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Erik Wasson and Laura Litvan Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The House passed a stopgap funding bill to keep the government operating past Friday, sending it to the Senate where a group of Republicans is threatening to delay action over objections to federal vaccine and testing mandates.

The 221-212 vote Thursday was largely along party lines as House GOP leaders urged their members to oppose the measure, which would fund U.S. government agencies at current levels through Feb. 18. That would give Democrats and Republicans time to finish negotiating full-year appropriations bills.

The temporary funding bill now faces a potential slowdown in the Senate that could trigger a brief weekend shutdown.

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A group of GOP lawmakers led by Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall has demanded a vote on an amendment that would block funding for the COVID-19 vaccine and testing mandates imposed by President Joe Biden’s administration. They want it to get a simple majority in the 50-50 Senate — rather than the chamber’s usual 60-vote threshold to advance legislation — before agreeing to proceed with a vote on the stopgap bill.

“An unconstitutional federal vaccine mandate is going to lead to an economic shutdown,” Marshall said Thursday. “This is a chance for us to right a wrong.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., hasn’t said whether he’ll agree to allow the amendment to get an up or down vote. A vaccine amendment sponsored by Marshall on the last stopgap bill failed on a party-line vote.

“Democrats and most Republicans, including the Republican leader, have said they don’t want to see a Republican shutdown. We hope cooler heads will prevail,” Schumer said.

Biden said Thursday that he spoke with Schumer and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell and that he doesn’t think the government will be forced into a shutdown.

“There is a plan in place unless somebody decides to be totally erratic, and I don’t think that will happen,” he told reporters.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said Thursday he’s still considering his position on the administration’s employer-based mandate. He didn’t specify whether he might want an amendment vote on the stopgap measure related to the mandate or might support overturning it in separate pending legislation that utilizes the Congressional Review Act.

Manchin voted against blocking funding for mandates in September, but that was before the Biden administration issued requirements for private-sector employers to require testing or vaccination.

Adding such an amendment to the stopgap in the Senate would force the House to vote on it again, and make the bill unpalatable to many House Democrats.

“We’re not going to go for their anti-vaxxing,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said. “If you think that’s how we’re going to keep government open, forget that.”

Speaking on Fox News Thursday morning, McConnell dismissed the likelihood that conservative Republicans will allow a lapse in government funding to occur. He pointed to other ways the Biden administration could be forced to abandon its Occupational Safety and Health Administration vaccine mandate that include a Senate vote as early as next week overturning it.

“There’s a decent chance the courts will strike them down,” McConnell said. “Secondly, next week we’re going to have a vote on the vaccine mandate, prohibiting that regulation from going into effect. I think it has a decent chance of passing the Senate. I don’t think shutting down the government over that issue is going to get an outcome. It would only create chaos and uncertainty.”

A federal court halted the administration’s rule requiring private employers to mandate COVID-19 vaccines or tests, while another federal court will hear the consolidated case against the mandate. Separate cases involving mandates for healthcare workers and federal contractors also are being litigated.

The funding extension puts agencies on autopilot, freezing in place program funding levels and forbidding new contracts, with few exceptions, one of which being $7 billion in funding to aid Afghan evacuees.

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro called on Republicans to make a full-year funding counteroffer soon to finish work on appropriations bills.

“Let me be clear: Working families, small businesses, veterans, and our military need the certainty that comes with passing omnibus funding legislation instead of short-term funding patches,” DeLauro said on the House floor.

The stopgap does not address automatic cuts to Medicare and other programs slated for January under the so-called Paygo law, despite Democratic efforts to include the provision.

Meeting the fast-approaching end-of-week deadline will require cooperation off all Senate Republicans, with each one having the power to drag out the process.

In a positive sign for efforts to avert a shutdown, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Appropriations Committee Republican, endorsed the House proposal.

“I’m pleased that we have finally reached an agreement on the continuing resolution,” Shelby said in a statement. He’s pushed to continue current funding through February, longer than Democrats wanted, to give additional time to reach agreement on the 12 annual appropriations bills.

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