Republicans Back Off Threat To Shut Government Over Vaccine Mandate

The Senate successfully averted a government shutdown on Thursday after a group of Senate conservatives agreed to a symbolic vote on vaccine mandates.

WASHINGTON — A group of Senate Republicans felt confident on Thursday afternoon about their strategy to hold up a government funding bill this week to dramatize their dislike of President Joe Biden’s efforts to encourage vaccination against COVID-19.

Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), the leader of the Senate faction that has said it will refuse to allow a quick vote on a government funding bill, said he’s gotten nothing but positive feedback for his stance.

“My phone has blown up and continues to blow up with the vaccine mandate issue, but not one Kansan has reached out to me to say, ‘Don’t shut the government down,’” Marshall told reporters Thursday.

But by Thursday evening, Marshall and his gang had folded, allowing a Senate vote on a government funding bill in exchange for a futile amendment vote against the vaccine rule. The Senate then approved a House-passed bill funding the federal government through mid-February by a bipartisan vote of 69–28, meaning there will be no shutdown.

Marshall and more than a dozen other Senate Republicans pledged last month to oppose any government funding bill that doesn’t “defund” the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s directive for firms with more than 100 employees to require vaccination or weekly testing for their workers. The new rule was set to take effect in January but has been placed on hold pending legal challenges.

Marshall claimed so many workers will refuse to be vaccinated, and therefore lose their jobs, that the rule will hurt the economy. He said the weekly testing alternative for workers who refuse shots would be “almost impossible” for employers to deal with.

“This is about an economic shutdown,” he said. “It’s not just about a government shutdown. I don’t want to shut the government down.”

The Senate needed unanimous consent in order to quickly pass a bill funding the government prior to the Friday deadline. Any senator can object, which gave Marshall and others who agree with him leverage over the process. But the Marshall faction completely backed down from its threat.

“It smacks of virtue-signaling when the courts have already put a stay on it and when the Biden administration isn’t enforcing a vaccine mandate on federal employees.”

- Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah)

Marshall and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said they would be willing to allow quick passage of a bill funding the government if Democrats agreed to a simple majority vote on an amendment defunding the vaccine mandate on businesses, which theoretically would have had a better chance of passage. With a simple majority instead of a 60 vote threshold, there was some chance a rogue Democrat, such as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), might side with Republicans to kill the mandate. But when the vote happened, every Democrat voted no.

Other Republicans also disagreed with the shutdown strategy, calling it a futile attempt to deal with an issue that may be moot already, since a pair of rulings by federal judges earlier this week have already blocked the Biden administration mandates from going into immediate effect for both federal contractors and health workers. The Biden administration has also said it wouldn’t punish federal workers who refuse to comply with the mandate until next year.

“It smacks of virtue-signaling when the courts have already put a stay on it and when the Biden administration isn’t enforcing a vaccine mandate on federal employees,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told HuffPost, referring to the shutdown strategy. “It doesn’t accomplish anything besides making some people frightened who are counting on checks from the government.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the senator who single-handedly shut down the government in 2013 in a hopeless bid to defund Obamacare, said the court cases made a shutdown all the more important because they showed the mandates were illegal.

Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) talks with reporters on his way to a vote at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 2 in Washington, D.C. With a deadline at midnight on Friday, congressional leaders are working to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government and avoid a government shutdown.
Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) talks with reporters on his way to a vote at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 2 in Washington, D.C. With a deadline at midnight on Friday, congressional leaders are working to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government and avoid a government shutdown.
Drew Angerer via Getty Images

“They are blatantly lawless. Joe Biden knows they’re lawless,” Cruz said. “And Democrats don’t care. They don’t care about medical privacy. They don’t care about individual autonomy. Instead, we have seen in the course of this pandemic Democrats being very comfortable with being petty tyrants.”

Even if the shutdown brigade had followed through on its threats to block a funding resolution, the funding lapse would have been brief, since the Senate can overcome a filibuster with cloture motions that just take a few days.

While Senate Republicans led the charge, House Republicans cheered them on. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who served as Cruz’s chief of staff and was the architect of his shutdown strategy, said it was worthwhile to shut down the government for a few days even if it doesn’t affect policy.

Republicans should “go through this weekend and force people to understand that there’s a seriousness and resolve and send a loud message,” Roy said.

Democrats had already previewed their own messaging, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) calling it a “Republican anti-vaccine shutdown.”

Nevermind about all that.

“I am glad that, in the end, cooler heads prevailed, the government will stay open, and I thank the members of this chamber for walking us back from the brink of an avoidable, needless and costly shutdown,” Schumer said.