WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional leaders reached agreement Thursday on a spending bill that would keep the government running through mid-February, though a temporary federal shutdown was still possible this weekend because some Republican senators are objecting to the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
The measure, expected to be taken up by the House later Thursday, would keep spending at current levels to Feb. 18 while including $7 billion to aid Afghanistan evacuees.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, had pushed for a much shorter duration, but Republicans said more time was needed to settle differences on a spending bill covering the entire budget year through 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, D-Conn., said in a statement.
If the House approves the measure, as expected, it would await Senate action before a midnight Friday deadline.
A White House statement urged "swift passage.” But conservative Republicans opposed to President Joe Biden's vaccine rules want Congress to take a hard stand against the mandated shots, even if that means shutting down federal offices over the weekend.
One GOP senator after another, after leaving a private lunch meeting Wednesday, expressed concern that they will be blamed for even a short stoppage that will not play well with the public. In the Senate, any single senator can hold up proceedings to stall a vote.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats are prepared to support the bill, adding it was "not easy to reach this deal.” He said most Republicans do not want a shutdown, but a "few individual Republican senators appear determined to derail this important legislation because of their opposition to the president’s lifesaving vaccine guidelines.”
"Let’s be clear, if there is a shutdown, it will be a Republican, anti-vaccine shutdown,” said Schumer, D-N.Y.
Political backlash over the administration’s vaccine mandates has been building for months. The White House sees the vaccinations as the quickest way to end a pandemic that has killed more than 780,000 people in the United States and is still evolving, as seen Wednesday with the country’s first detected case of a troubling new variant. During the last shutdown battle in September, Republicans also tried to halt the vaccine mandate.
Courts have knocked back against the mandates, including a ruling this week blocking enforcement of a requirement for some health care workers.
For some Republicans, the court cases and lawmakers’ fears about a potentially disruptive shutdown are factors against engaging in a high-stakes shutdown.
"One of the things I'm a little concerned about is: Why would we make ourselves the object of public attention by creating the specter of a government shutdown?" said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a GOP leader.
At the Capitol lunch meeting, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, tried to to make the case to his colleagues for linking the fight against the vaccine mandates to the spending bill.
Senators said the idea is to vote on stripping money that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would use to implement the requirement that private employers with 100 or more workers ensure they are vaccinated or regularly tested.
Lee appears to have backing from a few senators and hard-line House Republicans.
“This is a chance to correct a wrong,” said Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., who undertook a similar effort against vaccine mandates during the last government funding standoff.
But among most other Republican senators, enthusiasm for a shutdown is running thin.
"There's too much chaos in our country right now, too much concern about omicron. The last thing we need is more confusion and fear,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said publicly there will be no shutdown.
"We're going to be OK," McConnell told reporters.
The administration has pursued vaccine requirements for several groups of workers, but the effort is facing legal setbacks.
A federal judge this week blocked the administration from enforcing a vaccine mandate on thousands of health care workers in 10 states. Earlier, a federal appeals court temporarily halted the OSHA requirement affecting employers with 100 or more workers.
The administration has put in place policies requiring millions of federal employees and federal contractors, including military troops, to be fully vaccinated. Those efforts are also under challenge.
Polling from The Associated Press shows Americans are divided over Biden’s effort to vaccinate workers, with Democrats overwhelmingly for it while most Republicans are against.
Some Republicans prefer an effort from Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., to vote to reject the administration's mandates in a congressional review action expected next week, separate from the funding fight.
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