Government Nears Weekend Shutdown as Republicans Take Aim at Vaccine and Testing Mandates

WASHINGTON (Washington Post) -
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) walks to a Senate Republican Policy Luncheon on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, May 18, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Washington Post/Jabin Botsford)

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

Entering the week, Democrats and Republicans initially had hoped to fund the government before a current spending arrangement expires on Friday. Lawmakers aimed to 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.

“We won’t shut down,” proclaimed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at a news conference Tuesday.

A day later, though, the very catastrophe that congressional leaders had strained so hard to avoid seemed increasingly likely to occur — offering a fresh glimpse of the partisan rancor that has hamstrung Capitol Hill from fulfilling even the most basic duties of government in recent months.

House and Senate leaders had yet to settle on the exact duration of their short-term funding measure, delaying lawmakers from starting the time-sensitive votes. And some GOP lawmakers in both chambers newly promised to hold up the process, hoping to use it as leverage to quash Biden’s recent vaccine and testing directives targeting private businesses.

At least one Republican in the Senate — Utah’s Mike Lee — threatened to block swift debate on the measure. GOP leaders on Wednesday found themselves bracing for others to join, either by stalling the process or trying to force a vote on an amendment to defund the vaccine and testing mandate.

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

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.

The threats proved particularly problematic in the Senate, where Democratic votes alone are not enough to prevent a shutdown. Lawmakers need unanimity to speed through the debate if they hope to complete work on a short-term spending deal before Friday, when the current arrangement is set to expire. Absent that, Democratic aides envision a scenario in which federal funding lapses into the weekend, resulting in a short-term disruption to key federal agencies and programs.

“I hope that a small group of Republicans don’t choose obstruction,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Wednesday, adding that the two parties are “making good progress” in bipartisan talks.

Yet the mere prospect of a shutdown infuriated other Democrats, who blasted the GOP for obstruction at a time when the government is grappling with the arrival of a new, potentially more dangerous coronavirus variant.

“Totally irresponsible,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “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.”

The standoff reflected the ever-intensifying partisan acrimony on Capitol Hill. 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.

The spat began earlier this year, when Biden issued a vaccine and testing mandate, targeting federal workers, military service members and private businesses. In the latter case, the administration ordered firms that employ more than 100 workers to require vaccines or implement a comprehensive testing strategy, citing the need for worker safety.

The president’s approach has drawn a slew of legal challenges still playing out in federal courts, while prompting a fierce, vocal reaction among Republicans, who have sought to overturn the mandate. Every Senate GOP lawmaker voted earlier this year for an amendment denying funds to the federal agency carrying out the vaccine directive, though their effort – tied to the last debate over federal spending – ultimately did not prevail.

In the weeks to follow, 11 Republicans led by Sen. Roger Marshall pledged to “oppose all efforts to implement and enforce” the vaccine and testing mandate targeting businesses, adding they would act “with every tool at our disposal.” That included slowing down the now-imminent debate over a measure to fund the government into next year.

“To that end, please be advised [many weeks in advance of the current spending period, which ends on December 3, 2021] that we will not support – and will use all means at our disposal to oppose – legislation that funds or in any way enables the enforcement of President Biden’s employer vaccine mandate,” they said in their letter. “Nor will we vote for or support cloture on any continuing resolution in the absence of language protecting Americans from this action.”

The strategy on Wednesday appeared to leave even some Republicans uneasy.

“It’s true that I do not support a vaccine mandate,” said GOP Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). “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.”