US avoids gov’t shutdown as Senate passes stopgap funding bill

Republicans had threatened to block the funding over opposition to using federal money to support vaccine mandates.

A group of Republicans, led by Senator Mike Lee, had sought to prohibit using federal money to support Biden administration vaccine mandates. [File: J Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press]

In a rare moment of partisan unity, the United States Congress has approved a stopgap funding bill that averts a pending government shutdown.

The move to fund federal agencies through February 18 passed in the Senate on Thursday by a vote of 69-28, after Congressional leaders diffused a partisan standoff over federal money going towards enforcing worker vaccine mandates supported by the Democratic administration of President Joe Biden.

Democrats hold a razor-thin margin in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between them and the Republicans. Ties are broken by Vice President Kamala Harris.

The bill had previously passed along partisan lines, save for one Republican who broke ranks, in a vote of 221-212 in the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives. Biden is expected to sign the bill into law shortly.

“I am glad that, in the end, cooler heads prevailed – the government will stay open,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Thursday.

“And I thank the members of this chamber for walking us back from the brink of an avoidable, needless and costly shutdown.”

Threats to allow the government to shut down in an attempt to force ideologically-charged changes in how it spends its money have become increasingly common in US politics.

The longest shutdown in US history happened under President Donald Trump – 35 days stretching into January 2019 – when Democrats refused to approve money for his US-Mexico border wall.

Both parties agree the shutdowns are irresponsible, yet few deadlines pass without a late scramble to avoid them.

The most recent standoff was led by a group of Republicans who sought to block the bill “unless it prohibits funding – in all respects – for the vaccine mandates and enforcement thereof”, according to a letter they sent to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday.

As a compromise, the group was allowed to submit an amendment on Thursday prohibiting such funding. It failed in a simple majority vote shortly before the overall stopgap bill passed.

In July, Biden introduced a mandate that required all federal employees and contractors to get vaccinated for COVID-19. Two months later, he introduced mandates requiring healthcare workers and employees at private companies with more than 100 people on staff to be vaccinated, although a federal court in early November put that order on hold.

The passage of the legislation represents only a temporary solution, and legislators will have to unify behind a more comprehensive funding package for the new year before the stopgap funding runs out.

The parties have also yet to pass legislation raising the federal government’s debt ceiling, risking a first-ever US debt default that would tank the economy.

On Tuesday, leaders from both parties said they were hopeful they would reach an agreement on the issue “soon”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies