The Senate cleared a short-term spending measure Thursday after Democrats beat back several Republican amendments that could have triggered a partial government shutdown this weekend.
The continuing resolution, which passed the House last week, would extend current funding through March 11. It buys lawmakers an extra three weeks to pass an overdue omnibus appropriations package for the fiscal year that began last October.
The Senate sent the stopgap to President Joe Biden’s desk on a 65-27 vote, with one day to spare before all current funding for federal departments and agencies is set to expire.
The final vote came after several days of private negotiating over procedure. Adoption of any amendments would have required the bill to be sent back for another vote in the House, which is now in recess.
Democrats had an uphill fight in the 50-50 Senate because three of their members have been absent this week. But the task became easier because senators from both parties were itching to leave the Capitol late in the day to attend the Munich Security Conference. With fewer Republicans on hand to vote, GOP amendments could more easily be defeated.
Republicans offered two amendments designed to register their opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandates. An amendment by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to deny funding to school districts with vaccine mandates was defeated, 44-49, with two Republicans, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Susan Collins of Maine, joining all Democrats in opposition.
A broader amendment by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, which would have denied funding to enforce any federal vaccine mandates, was shot down on a vote of 46-47.
‘Sick and tired’
“The American people are sick and tired of the federal government micromanaging every minute detail of their lives,” Lee said during brief debate on his amendment. Workers who don’t want to comply with vaccine mandates, he said, “deserve better than pink slips and boots out the door simply for making their own medical choices.”
Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chair Patty Murray spoke against Lee’s amendment.
“My colleagues are here once again pretending the biggest threat to our nation is not the virus, but instead its vaccines, tests and masks that have saved lives,” Murray said. “This makes about as much sense as blaming the rescue crew for a shipwreck and threatening to sink that lifeboat unless they stop helping.”
Cruz said his amendment was needed to prevent an “absolute abuse of power” by local school boards. “If you want to vaccinate your children, that ought to be your choice … but we are seeing arrogant blue-state Democrats across the country say to moms and dads, ‘I don’t care what your views are,'” Cruz said. “These petty tyrants have no right to force parents to vaccinate children with a new and untested vaccine.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., rebutted Cruz by arguing it should be the right of local officials and voters to make their own decisions without being threatened with a loss of federal funds.
“This is unprecedented in this body: An effort by the federal government to force local school boards and state superintendents of instruction to not have a vaccine mandate at the cost of taking money away from the students and the teachers of the parents,” Kaine said. “In Virginia, parents very strongly support vaccination of children. Why would we not listen to parents? Why would we not listen to the local school boards that are hearing from parents on this?”
Cruz said voters reject such policies, even in blue-state enclaves. But in the end, no Democrat voted with the Republicans on the Lee and Cruz amendments.
Finally, Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., offered an amendment to establish a point of order against consideration of budget resolutions that don’t show a path to a balanced budget within 10 years.
Braun’s amendment, which required a 60-vote threshold for adoption, fell short on a 47-45 vote. Braun, a fiscal conservative, said Wednesday his goal was to put all senators on the record in favor or opposition to balanced budgets.
Earlier, a push by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for his legislation that would bar the Department of Health and Human Services from using any money in its “harm reduction program” for drug users to distribute “crack pipes” or other drug paraphernalia had been complicating the path to CR passage.
The White House and Democrats largely accepted the basic premise of Rubio’s bill and were working with him on compromise language. But Rubio late Thursday said he was troubled by a “loophole” that health officials could still distribute plastic tubing that attaches to pipes, even if the pipes themselves would not be provided.
“I think that’s nuts,” Rubio said on the floor, in asking unanimous consent to bring up his bill. “This is insane.”
Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., objected, saying Rubio’s bill “would severely cripple our ability to respond to [drug] addiction.”
Despite his concerns, Rubio ultimately didn’t object to the time agreement paving the way for a few amendment votes and final passage of the continuing resolution.
More difficult task
Biden is sure to sign the stopgap — the third such measure passed since September to keep the lights on in government offices. But lawmakers still faced the more difficult task of negotiating a final spending package for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Before the stopgap vote, Leahy expressed hope on the floor that a spending deal was now within reach. He said a “framework” agreement announced by top appropriators last week would pave the way for “the biggest increase in nondefense programs in four years.”
His Republican counterpart on Appropriations, Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby, didn’t dispute Leahy’s comment.
“That’s the Democrat agenda,” Shelby said. “Our agenda was national security. But, you know, in anything … bipartisan, to try to get a bill through, you’re going to have to give to get.”
Laura Weiss and Peter Cohn contributed to this report.