WASHINGTON >> Congress on Thursday gave final approval to legislation to keep the government funded through mid-February, after Republicans dropped a threat to force a shutdown over the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates.
With less than 36 hours before funding was set to lapse, lawmakers raced to unite behind a deal that would keep the government open through Feb. 18 and provide $7 billion for the care and resettlement of Afghan refugees. The House voted 221-212 to approve the measure, with just one Republican, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, joining Democrats in support.
The Senate then cleared the bill on a 69-28 vote, sending it to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature. Nineteen Republicans joined all 50 Democrats in supporting the measure. The action came after senators voted down an amendment to bar funding to carry out Biden’s vaccine mandates for tens of millions of U.S. workers, including many in the private sector.
Party leaders announced a deal on the bill Thursday morning after days of haggling. But the fate of the legislation remained in doubt for much of the day in the Senate, where unanimity was needed to expedite the bill’s passage before funding lapsed. A few Republicans had threatened to object until they were granted a vote on defunding the vaccine mandates.
“I’m glad that in the end, cooler heads prevailed — the government will stay open,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader. “I thank the members of this chamber for walking us back from the brink of an avoidable, needless and costly shutdown.”
Leaders in both parties had warned against a government shutdown and had urged their colleagues to find alternative ways to register their opposition to the vaccine mandates. Multiple lawmakers and aides noted that the Senate was already on track to vote later this month on a Republican bid to roll back the rule for private sector employees.
Senior Democrats and Republicans in Congress hailed the spending agreement, saying it would afford them more time to resolve outstanding disputes and approve longer-term legislation to fund the government next year.
“While I wish the Feb. 18 end date were earlier, and I pursued earlier dates, I believe this agreement allows the appropriations process to move forward toward a final funding agreement that addresses the needs of the American people,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
Lawmakers have long conceded that they need more time to negotiate the dozen bills that would fund the government for the entire fiscal year, but the stopgap plan had become snarled in partisan disagreements over how long it should last and what additional funding proposals could be attached to it.
Because the short-term legislation maintains existing funding levels, it will effectively codify through mid-February what had been negotiated with the Trump administration. Democrats had pushed to do so only through late January, as they are eager to enact their own funding levels and priorities while in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
“This is not a victory lap — we are two months into the fiscal year and appear no closer to getting an agreement on full-year appropriations bills,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, warned. “With this vote, we are buying time to complete those negotiations, and we must.”
As part of the short-term measure, both parties agreed to provide $7 billion for Afghan evacuees who fled the country after the Taliban regained control and U.S. troops withdrew. The additional funding includes about $4.3 billion for the Defense Department to care for evacuees on military bases, $1.3 billion for the State Department and $1.3 billion for a division of the Department of Health and Human Services to provide resettlement and other services, including emergency housing and English language classes.
Facing objections from Republicans, Democrats dropped a push to avert billions of dollars in looming cuts to Medicare, farm subsidies and other programs.
“While I’m sure President Trump will be only too delighted to have his last budget continue for almost a year after he left office, there is real work left to be done,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.,a member of the House Appropriations Committee. Referring to the stopgap measure, Cole added, “Perhaps what is most frustrating has been the way in which the majority has bungled reaching a relatively simple deal on this particular continuing resolution.”
Across the Capitol, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that he was “pleased that we have finally reached an agreement.”
But he offered a warning about the negotiations over the long-term spending bills. He said that if Democrats continued to push for policies that Republicans oppose, such as less defense funding and the elimination of the Hyde Amendment, which blocks federal funding for abortions, “we’ll be having the same conversation in February.”
Other members of Shelby’s party, however, spent much of the week threatening to delay passage of the short-term bill, which raised the possibility of a shutdown this weekend. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Roger Marshall of Kansas, both Republicans, led the push to cut off funding for the vaccine mandates, particularly singling out the mandate on businesses with at least 100 workers.
“Never once has any one of us wanted to shut down government,” Lee said in a floor speech just before the amendment vote. “We’ve wanted to give the American worker a chance, a chance for us to vote for them, a chance for us to stand with them.”
The vote on the amendment failed along party lines, with 48 Republicans in favor and 50 Democrats opposed. But one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said afterward that he opposed the mandate for businesses and would support overturning it.
Several senior Republicans who have objected to the vaccine mandates had warned that the dispute was not worth a government shutdown, particularly as the nation confronts a new coronavirus variant.
Speaking on Fox News, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, said a shutdown “would only create chaos and uncertainty, so I don’t think that’s the best vehicle to get this job done.”
The private sector requirement, which the Biden administration had set to go into effect in January, has become ensnared in court challenges. In November, a federal appeals court kept a block on it in place and declared that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had overstepped its authority in issuing the rule.
“This is so silly, that we have people who are anti-science, anti-vaccination, saying they’re going to shut down government over that,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., visibly exasperated, said at her weekly news conference. “We’re not going to go for their acts of anti-vaccine, OK?”
“So if you think that’s how we’re going to keep government open,” she added, “forget that.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.