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Senate passes bill to avert shutdown, fund government through March 11

The House has already approved the measure, which now goes to President Biden for enactment

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks to reporters Feb. 16, 2022, outside a Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)
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The Senate on Thursday approved a measure to fund the federal government through March 11, marking the final legislative step toward preventing a shutdown that would have occurred by the end of the week.

The measure now heads to President Biden’s desk, where his signature will give lawmakers about three more weeks to reach the sort of longer-term deal that has eluded them for months — a tricky debate that some hope will pave the way for billions of dollars in new coronavirus aid.

The stopgap, known on Capitol Hill as a continuing resolution, largely preserves federal spending at its existing clip. The bipartisan, 65-27 vote followed days of partisan wrangling, after a crop of Republicans held up swift passage to take a series of political stands — seeking to protest excessive federal spending, defund federal vaccine mandates and prevent the government from subsidizing crack pipes.

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Like before, the spending patch spares the government from significant disruption, particularly during an ever-evolving pandemic. But it also comes at the cost of Biden’s agenda, preventing Democrats from ratcheting up spending in areas like health care, education, science and research as the president first proposed last spring. Republicans have rejected many of Biden’s plans, believing instead the country should spend more on defense.

Hoping to resolve the logjam, Democrats and Republicans began talks at the end of last year on a longer-term package of spending measures, called an omnibus, that might address both parties’ priorities. In recent days, top lawmakers have insisted they are making progress in striking such a deal, which could bump up both domestic spending as well as defense — each by tens of billions of dollars.,

“It will provide the biggest increase in nondefense programs in four years,” predicted Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, during a speech on the chamber floor earlier Thursday.

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But much of the intricate spending work remains unresolved. Adding to the challenges, House and Senate leaders have little margin for error in a time of narrow Democratic majorities, a dynamic on display as lawmakers readied the stopgap proposal this week. At various points, Republicans threatened to hold up the must-pass measure, turning the routine matter of governance into a pitched political affair.

In one camp was Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who initially threatened to block swift consideration of the continuing resolution over concerns about a federal harm reduction program to distribute safe smoking kits. Seizing on disputed reports in conservative media, Blackburn expressed fear that crack pipes might be included as part of the kits.

Blackburn specifically demanded a formal commitment that the federal government would not spend taxpayer dollars on crack pipe, despite days of public denials from the Department of Health and Human Services. That official word arrived Tuesday from the health agency’s leader, Secretary Xavier Becerra, prompting Blackburn soon after to release her hold on the proposal.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) later then sought to force a vote on a measure that would explicitly ban federal funding for crack pipes, arguing that the HHS program still would have sent other drug paraphernalia, including mouthpieces, that might allow for drug users to smoke crack. He moved to bring up his bill, describing the entire affair as “insane.”

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But Democrats led by Leahy objected on grounds that Rubio’s proposal might curtail federal addiction programs. In doing so, Leahy blasted the whole of the Senate for delaying a swift resolution to the funding fight: Pounding his fist on the lectern, he fretted Republicans’ tactics all the while “a war about to start in Ukraine.”

On another front, a group of Republicans led by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) once again took aim at Biden’s policies on vaccines and testing. They threatened to block the swift advance of the continuing resolution unless they could first hold votes on two proposals to defund enforcement of vaccine requirements targeting federal workers and students.

Public health experts overwhelmingly have praised vaccine mandates, given the safety of the inoculations — and their proven potency against severe disease and death. But Republicans have blasted the rules as government overreach, and Cruz on Thursday described them as a form of tyranny, fueling an all-out blitz to defeat the rules at the state and federal levels.

Much as before, Democrats battled back the twin Republican amendments. But the GOP lawmakers appeared to signal earlier in the week they would not abandon their quest — even as federal courts recently have ruled in their favor, scrapping some of the Biden administration’s rules.

“As Members of Congress, we must not abdicate our Article I duties in the hopes that the judicial branch will rule in favor of the American people, or that if left unaddressed by legislative action, the problem before us will somehow dissipate,” the Republicans wrote in a letter to rally support sent earlier this week. “History will bear record of whether we chose to endure tyranny, or oppose it, in this pivotal moment.”

Another round of thorny political debates await Democrats and Republicans as they look toward a longer-term spending agreement, which could cover federal expenses for the remainder of the fiscal year. The package could also serve as a vehicle for other priorities, including the provision of disaster aid on top of new money in response to the coronavirus.

Some Democrats would like to see billions of dollars set aside to further develop and deploy vaccines globally, for example, while others have joined with Republicans in pursuing another round of aid for small businesses. Still another Democratic push has looked to revive a limited paid family and medical leave program first enacted in the early days of the public health crisis.

But the calls for more coronavirus spending have not sat well with some Republicans. Top party lawmakers have called on the Biden administration recently to focus first on repurposing some of the existing, roughly $6 trillion approved since the start of the pandemic before returning to Congress to ask for more.

“Where we gonna get the money?” asked Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), the party’s top lawmaker on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Referring to the talks more broadly, he added Wednesday: “Once you start a vehicle moving a lot of people want to ride on it.”

The Biden administration, meanwhile, began to brief Congress this week on its financial needs: The Department of Health and Human Services told appropriators on Tuesday that it sought roughly $30 billion to boost testing, therapeutics and vaccines, largely with the goal of stocking the government with resources to respond to any potential new variant of the coronavirus. Some Democrats expect the president’s top aides to make additional spending requests in the days ahead.


A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.