By KEVIN FREKING and LISA MASCARO
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 as some Republican senators threatened to slow-walk passage because of the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
The measure would generally keep spending at current levels through Feb. 18 while adding $7 billion to aid Afghanistan evacuees. If the House approves the measure Thursday, as expected, it would await Senate action before a midnight Friday deadline.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, had pushed for a shorter duration, but Republicans said more time was needed to settle differences on a spending package 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.
President Joe Biden said he has spoken with Senate leaders and he played down fears of a shutdown.
“There is a plan in place unless somebody decides to be totally erratic, and I don’t think that will happen,” Biden said.
Conservative Republicans opposed to Biden’s vaccine rules want Congress to take a hard stand against the mandated shots at large employers, even if that means shutting down federal offices over the weekend.
It was just the latest instance of the brinkmanship around government funding that has triggered several costly shutdowns and partial closures over the past two decades. The longest shutdown in history happened under President Donald Trump — 35 days stretching into January 2019, when Democrats refused to approve money for his U.S-Mexico border wall. Both parties agree the stoppages are irresponsible, yet few deadlines pass without a late scramble to avoid them.
One GOP senator after another, after leaving a private lunch meeting Wednesday, expressed concern that they will be blamed for even a short shutdown that will not play well with the public. In the Senate, any single senator can hold up proceedings to stall a vote.
But Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, wasn’t backing down.
He said Democrats knew last month from a letter that several Republicans would use all means at their disposal to oppose legislation that funds or allows the enforcement of the employer vaccine mandate. He blamed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for not negotiating and for ignoring their position.
If the choice is between “suspending nonessential functions” or standing idle while Americans lose their ability to work, “I’ll stand with American workers every time,” Lee said.
GOP 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.
“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.
Schumer said Democrats are prepared to support the spending 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,” Schumer said.
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.
“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., reiterated Thursday that there will be no shutdown.
“We’re not going to do that,” he said.
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 also 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.
Separately, some health care providers are protesting the stopgap spending measure. Hospitals say it does nothing to shield them from Medicare payment cuts scheduled to go into effect amid uncertainty about the new omicron variant.
One is a cut of up to 4% that would snap into place next year as part of a broader anti-deficit measure, and the other is a 2% across-the-board reduction that has been on the books for years but was suspended in the coronavirus pandemic.