Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Republicans will be to blame if the government shuts down.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Republicans will be to blame if the government shuts down. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Vaccine Mandates, Duration Throw Hurdles Into Short-Term Measure to Avoid Shutdown

Plans once again unclear with less than three days until agencies would close.

Disputes over multiple issues are tripping up lawmakers as they seek to avoid a shutdown in less than three days, despite bipartisan agreement among leadership that agencies should remain open. 

Conservative members of the House and Senate are seeking to leverage the next stopgap spending measure to block funding for the implementation of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, demanding that Republican leadership use “all procedural tools” available to block swift passage of the shutdown-averting continuing resolution. Before such tools can even be deployed, however, congressional leaders must first put forward the text of a temporary spending bill. The current CR is set to expire Friday evening, but lawmakers have yet to agree on how long the next iteration should last. 

House Democrats had originally floated Wednesday as their deadline for voting on the bill, but the timing is now in flux as Senate leaders debate its duration. Negotiators have indicated it will carry agencies over at their fiscal 2021 spending levels at least into the new calendar year, but Democrats want it to expire in January while Republicans want it to last longer. 

With the deadline approaching, any agreement at this point will require unanimous acquiescence in the Senate to avoid a shutdown. If just one conservative senator follows through on a threat to block quick consideration of a CR over vaccine mandate funding, agencies will be forced to shutter for at least a short time. 

President Biden has issued three separate COVID-19 vaccine mandates: one for all civilian and military federal employees, a second for federal contractors and a third for private sector employers with more than 100 workers. The private sector mandate is not currently in effect as a federal court has paused its enforcement. The contractor portion has been halted in three states, while the federal employee mandate remains in effect. Nearly 97% of federal employees are in compliance with the mandate and the Biden administration has delayed suspensions and firings for the remaining employees. 

In a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the House Freedom Caucus—which has more than 30 Republican members—did not specify which of the mandates it hopes to target. The caucus called the mandates "damaging, un-American and, in the worst cases, unlawful." 

“We therefore write to request you use all procedural tools at your disposal to deny timely passage of the CR unless it prohibits funding—in all respects—for the vaccine mandate and enforcement thereof,” the Freedom Caucus wrote to McConnell. 

For his part, the Republican leader has been adamant that Congress would avoid a shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., sought on Tuesday to place all blame for any potential funding lapse on Republicans. 

"The House is working to send us a CR that will fund the government until early next year,” Schumer said. “If a handful of Senate Republicans choose obstruction, there will be a Republican-manufactured shutdown caused by Republican dysfunction, once again, in their caucus."

The holdup over the stopgap bill’s duration may trace back to a desire some Republicans have floated to push for a full-year CR, hoping to avoid the large fiscal 2022 spending increases for domestic agencies for which Democrats have advocated. Senate Democrats last month unveiled their proposals for the 12 annual spending bills, which taken together would give domestic agencies a 13% boost compared to current levels.

Republicans blasted the measures and said their introduction was a "significant step in the wrong direction." The two parties have yet to agree on the top-line spending totals that would make up the defense and non-defense portions of the fiscal 2022 budget, stymying negotiators from finalizing the 12 individual appropriations bills Congress must pass each year. Republican appropriators said this week the new January timeframe Democrats are seeking would not provide enough time to resolve the outstanding issues currently blocking full-year appropriations.