Senate clears Feb. 18 stopgap funding bill, averts shutdown

Senate GOP holdouts relent after vote on vaccine amendment

House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 2, 2021 at 10:33am, Updated at 9:36pm

The Senate cleared a temporary spending bill Thursday night that would keep the lights on at federal agencies through Feb. 18, buying 11 more weeks to try to resolve partisan disputes over funding levels and policy riders that have stalled progress on fiscal 2022 appropriations.

The stopgap measure passed the House on a 221-212 vote earlier in the evening and cleared the Senate on a 69-28 vote. The Senate first voted 48-50 to reject an amendment from a group of Republican conservatives to bar funding to implement a new private sector vaccine mandate as well as requirements for federal employees, federal contractors, health care workers and the military.

The stopgap bill will carry $7 billion in emergency funds for continued assistance to Afghan evacuees who fled that war-torn country after the Taliban takeover, including $4 billion in aid for those being sheltered at overseas U.S. military operations. Another $1.6 billion in new funding is designated to help care for unaccompanied children who crossed the border and are in U.S. custody.

The temporary measure would not waive statutory pay-as-you-go rules that could lead to deep spending cuts starting in January — slicing 4 percent from Medicare reimbursements, slashing farm subsidies and wiping out dozens of smaller programs. Republicans and Democrats couldn't agree on that in part because there's a decent chance Congress will have to deal with the pay-as-you-go issue again once the budget reconciliation bill passes.

But a Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said lawmakers expect to include the waiver in another bill before the end of the year. It can't be included in a reconciliation bill due to Senate budget rules, but another vehicle that's still available is the fiscal 2022 defense authorization measure.

Other Medicare cuts taking place Jan. 1, including a 2 percent "sequester" and separate reductions to reimbursements for physicians and clinical laboratory services, won't be addressed in the CR. But it would extend higher Medicaid matching rates for U.S. territories through Feb. 18.

Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, a physician, offered an amendment at the Rules Committee to extend the current Medicare reimbursement rates through the duration of the stopgap bill, averting a 3.7 percent cut.

Democrats opposed his offset, however, which would cut amounts available in the Department of Health and Human Services' Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund. And House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said a "comprehensive bipartisan solution by the end of the year" for all of the outstanding health care provider issues was in the works.

The CR would temporarily boost funding for Indian Health Service staffing; avert cuts in food packages for low-income women, infants and children that could reduce access to fruits and vegetables; and extend a waiver expiring Dec. 31 that allows individuals in assisted living facilities to access food stamp benefits.

The stopgap bill also would:

  • Repeal a provision in the fiscal 2021 omnibus spending law that would block NASA funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, currently scheduled to launch on Dec. 22.
  • Extend a pay freeze for the vice president and other senior executive branch officials for another year.
  • Extend an exemption from Antideficiency Act rules for the Federal Communications Commission's Universal Service Fund to continue to provide broadband funds to schools, libraries, hospitals and rural areas.

'Build pressure'

Otherwise the stopgap measure is generally short on "anomalies," or exemptions from typical restrictions in a continuing resolution. DeLauro said that's intended to "build pressure" for a deal on full year spending bills before the new Feb. 18 deadline.

That date is later than DeLauro wanted, but she characterized it as the result of tough negotiations with the GOP that led to Democratic priorities like the money for Afghan evacuees being included.

“While I wish it were earlier, this agreement allows the appropriations process to move forward toward a final funding agreement which addresses the needs of the American people,” DeLauro said in a statement.

Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said he was “pleased” with the agreement, adding it’s time for lawmakers to “get serious” about wrapping up the dozen fiscal 2022 spending measures.

But Shelby warned that "we'll be having this same conversation in February" if Democrats don't agree to back off of "poison pill" policy provisions and provide robust funding for defense.

The agreement follows several tense days of negotiation over the length of the continuing resolution and how many anomalies it should include. The current continuing resolution expires on Friday at midnight; federal agencies would have to begin shutting down operations without an extension by then.

House Democrats didn't get much help from the Republican side. Only retiring Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., crossed the aisle to support the measure. In the Senate, 19 Republicans backed the measure.

Earlier Thursday, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., sent a notice to GOP lawmakers urging them to vote "no" on the stopgap bill, taking issue with the limited time available for members to read the text as well as the vetting process for Afghans granted entry to the U.S. Some Republicans want to require individuals admitted to the U.S. to apply for REAL ID cards, which they say would ensure a thorough screening process.

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, the Appropriations panel's ranking member, voted against the measure, saying she wished negotiations on spending levels were further along.

"I don’t think it’s realistic for Republicans to negotiate on appropriations bills while another massive reconciliation package is still under discussion," she said. "However, I hope that we can make progress once we move into the new year."
Vaccine fight

Earlier in the day it didn't seem like the Senate vote would go as smoothly as in the House.

Several GOP senators said they wanted a simple majority vote on their amendment to bar funding for an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule requiring businesses with at least 100 workers to ensure they are fully vaccinated or tested regularly. The rule is currently on hold pending litigation at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

The amendment would have also barred federal funds from enforcing vaccine requirements for federal employees, federal contractors, health care workers and the military. The requirement for health care workers is under a court challenge.

"All we ask for is an up-or-down vote," Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said in a floor speech Thursday. "It would take 15 minutes."

Lee said the pending litigation doesn't "in any way remove our obligation here in Congress" to oppose an "immoral" and "unconstitutional" mandate.

The vote on a similar Marshall amendment was 50-50 in late September. The earlier amendment, offered before the OSHA mandate was finalized, would have covered any regulation promulgated by the Biden administration except those covering federal workers.

One of those "no" votes in September was Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va. Manchin on Thursday expressed some concern with the vaccine rule, however.

While supportive of similar requirements for federal workers and the military, Manchin told reporters he was "less enthused" about a private sector mandate.

Ultimately, Manchin voted against the more expansive Marshall amendment offered Thursday night. But he signed onto a resolution from Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., that would overturn the OSHA vaccine rule under Congressional Review Act authorities, which only require a simple majority to pass the Senate.

Manchin would be the 51st vote, but the resolution would still have to pass the Democrat-controlled House and be signed into law, which is unlikely.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier Thursday on Fox News he thinks there's a “decent chance” the courts will strike down the vaccine mandates.

“We’re not going to shut the government down," he said. "That makes no sense for anyone. Almost no one on either side thinks that’s a good idea.”

Lauren Clason, David Lerman and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.