Congress votes to avert US government shutdown

US lawmakers have approved legislation to avert a government shutdown, defusing a Republican effort to torpedo a funding agreement in protest against the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates.

The US Senate on Thursday night approved legislation to keep the government funded until February 18 by a vote of 69 to 28. This matched a bill passed by the House of Representatives in a 221-212 vote earlier in the day, paving the way for it to be enacted by President Joe Biden.

“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,” Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader and a Democrat from New York, said.

The likelihood of a government shutdown as early as this weekend had increased sharply in recent days after several Republican senators including Roger Marshall of Kansas and Mike Lee of Utah threatened to hold up the funding legislation, in an effort to block new federal Covid-19 rules for big businesses.

But in the end the Republican holdouts allowed a vote on the measure, after securing a commitment from Democrats for a vote on a separate measure to defund vaccination mandates, even though it failed.

The Biden administration has said that from next year, companies with 100 workers or more must either force their employees to be vaccinated or make them take a test once a week, affecting an estimated 80m private sector workers. The White House has already directed federal employees and contractors to be vaccinated against Covid.

After delivering a speech on Thursday on fresh measures to combat the Omicron coronavirus variant, Biden had told reporters that he was confident a shutdown could be avoided.

“We have everything in place to be able to make sure there is not a shutdown,” the president said. “I spoke with [Republican Senate minority leader] Mitch McConnell, I spoke with [Democratic Senate majority leader] Schumer, there is a plan in place unless somebody decides to be totally erratic, and I don’t think that will happen.”

The vote to avert the shutdown was the first order of business for Congress in a packed legislative calendar before the holidays — with lawmakers still wrestling over agreements to fund the defence budget, increase the debt limit and approve Biden’s $1.75tn spending agenda through the Senate.

The Republicans’ objections to the vaccine mandate have come despite growing concern in the US about the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant. Biden announced a range of measures on Thursday intended to slow the spread of the virus, including free at-home rapid tests for all Americans, an extended mask mandate on public transport and tighter testing requirements for international travellers.

The last time the federal government shut down was in late 2018 amid a stand-off between lawmakers and Donald Trump over the former president’s desire to build a wall along the border with Mexico. That stand-off lasted 35 days, making it the longest shutdown in US history.

Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Speaker of the House, criticised Republicans for getting to this point, saying: “How do they explain to the public that they are shutting down the government because they don’t want people to get vaccinated?”

“We are not going to go for their anti-vaxxing. OK?” she told reporters, insisting Democrats would not cave to opposition lawmakers’ demands. “So if you think that is how we are going to keep government open, forget that. Forget that.”

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