Republicans threaten bid to avert US government shutdown

Washington (AFP) – US lawmakers scrambled Thursday to avert a weekend government shutdown as Republicans stalled a bill to fund federal agencies in a bid to derail President Joe Biden's Covid-19 vaccine mandate.


With the clock ticking down to the Friday-Saturday midnight deadline, the House was expected to send a stopgap measure to the Senate that would keep the government open until February 18, with cross-party backing.

But hardline Senate Republicans have threatened to hold up the legislation over their opposition to Biden's unrelated order that large companies mandate Covid-19 vaccinations or frequent testing for workers.

"This morning, the House will start the process to take up this government funding measure, and we hope they can have it passed through their chamber by the end of today," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

"Unfortunately, it seems Republican dysfunction could be a roadblock to averting an unnecessary and dangerous government shutdown."

The pandemic has killed more than 780,000 people in the United States, and the troubling new Omicron variant of the virus has raised fears of a winter surge in cases.

But legal challenges have mounted against Biden's edict requiring vaccination or regular testing for some sections of the US workforce, including companies with more than 100 employees, military personnel and health care workers.

Republican Senator Mike Lee wants to remove federal funding to implement the corporate mandate and is backed by several right wingers in both chambers.

The majority of Republicans -- including the party's Senate leader Mitch McConnell -- are against the move, fearing they will be blamed for a shutdown, but in the evenly-divided upper chamber any single senator can stall any vote.

'Good compromise'

Schumer told colleagues on the Senate floor the cross-party stopgap deal was a "good compromise that allows an appropriate amount of time for both parties in both chambers to finish negotiations."

It was not immediately unclear if McConnell had brokered a deal to bring Lee to heel but the Republican leader told Fox News: "We're not going to shut the government down.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer described the stopgap deal as a "good compromise"
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer described the stopgap deal as a "good compromise" CHIP SOMODEVILLA GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP

"It makes no sense for anyone. Almost no one on either side thinks it's a good idea."

All 100 senators would have to agree to schedule a quick vote to avoid a shutdown. If they fail to keep the government open, the closures would begin over the weekend and could bleed into the following week.

S&P Global Economics estimates a shutdown could shave around $1.8 billion off economic growth every week.

Millions of government workers and armed forces personnel would have to work without pay while national parks and museums would close and baggage screening at airports would also likely be hit.

Regardless of the fate of the stopgap measure, the White House called Thursday for "swift passage" of an agreement to fund the government for a full year.

"The Congress has a long history of reaching bipartisan appropriations agreements that benefit the American people," it said.

"Over the coming weeks, lawmakers have an opportunity and obligation to do so again."

A quick stopgap deal would allow lawmakers to focus on numerous other priorities piling up before the end of the year, however, including the urgent need to stave off a catastrophic credit default.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned that the federal government could run out of the ability to borrow money on December 15, although experts believe the real deadline is some time in January.

Schumer and McConnell have been negotiating to solve the issue but no deal has emerged.

And the Senate still hasn't voted on Biden's House-passed $1.8 trillion Build Back Better social spending legislation or a must-pass defense authorization bill.