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House conservatives press government shutdown threat over vaccine mandates

Congress has to pass a bill to keep the government funded by Friday night to avert a partial government shutdown.
Image: Senate Returns From Thanksgiving Break
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell with a reporter at the Capitol on Monday.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The conservative House Freedom Caucus is urging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to delay passage of a spending bill needed by Friday evening to prevent a partial government shutdown unless it prohibits funding for the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates.

Some Republican senators now appear on board with that effort.

The wheels were put in motion with a letter to McConnell on Wednesday, when the Freedom Caucus said the House is voting later in the day on the spending measure, known as a continuing resolution, “without ending any of President Biden’s very damaging, un-American, and in the worst cases, unlawful vaccine mandates.”

The group said Senate Republicans have “important leverage” against the mandates because Democrats will need GOP votes to advance the spending measure by Friday night.

“We therefore write to request that you use all procedural tools at your disposal to deny timely passage of the CR unless it prohibits funding — in all respects — for the vaccine mandates and enforcement thereof,” they wrote.

The conservative caucus is essentially threatening a potential shutdown to push back against the vaccine mandates announced by President Joe Biden, which have been tied up in the courts.

A pair of Republican senators — Mike Lee, of Utah, and Roger Marshall, of Kansas — have since threatened to delay the government spending bill if funding to enforce vaccine mandates is included.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Lee “feels very strongly that [the vaccine mandate] is an illegal unconstitutional mandate and I think is a principled matter. He feels like if we have a vehicle to express our disapproval, then we’re obligated to do so.”

Cornyn suggested he's not on board with Lee's plan.

“One of the things I’m a little concerned about is why would we make ourselves, you know, the object of public attention by raising the specter of a government shutdown? I don’t particularly get that given the experience we’ve had of government shutdowns not necessarily benefiting the people who prompted them,” Cornyn told reporters.

While Lee cannot single-handedly prevent Congress from eventually passing a funding bill, he could cause a temporary shutdown through the weekend because of Senate rules that require the consent of all 100 senators to expedite legislation.

At a closed-door lunch Wednesday, some of Lee's GOP colleagues tried to get him to instead support an alternate approach: backing a measure by Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., that would undo the Biden rule mandating vaccines.

All 50 Republican senators have said they support Braun's measure, but they would need at least one Democrat to sign on to get it through the Senate. Lee told colleagues Wednesday he still plans to delay the funding bill.

"It was an argument, but clearly not convincing," Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said of the efforts to sway Lee.

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, a vocal member of the Freedom Caucus, questioned Wednesday on Fox News whether Republicans are “going to stand up and say that not one single dollar should be used to fund government that is telling people that they must get a vaccine, a mandatory vaccine, or they’re gonna lose their job.”

“The president doesn’t have the power to do this,” he continued. “And where is Congress? Congress needs to man up, stand up and fight for the American people. And that means don’t fund a government that is tyrannically forcing people to get a vaccine that they don’t want to get.”

McConnell, however, made it clear Tuesday that he doesn’t want a shutdown. ​​

“We won't shut down,” he told reporters. “I think we'll get there, and certainly nobody should be concerned about a government shutdown.”

Marshall told reporters that whether there's a shutdown or not is up to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

"If he’ll stop any type of funding for the vaccine mandate, then I think this goes forward. But if he doesn't, this should all be about the economy back home. A federal mandate on vaccines is going to kill the economy in Kansas and across the nation," he said.

Marshall spearheaded a letter signed by 10 other GOP senators in early November that said they would "not support—and will use all means at our disposal to oppose—legislation that funds or in any way enables the enforcement of President Biden’s employer vaccine mandate," including a continuing resolution, unless the latter contains language “protecting Americans from this action.”

One of the signatories, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Wednesday that Republicans should use every tool at their disposal to block the mandates.

"There’s a frequent mantra that those on the left have employed: Your body, your choice," he said. "Well, it happens to be right. You should have the choice of the medical procedures that you choose to engage on your body."

When asked if he would hold up the continuing resolution over the mandate language, Cruz said: "I think we should use every tool we have to protect people's rights, and the vaccine mandates are illegal. They're abusive, and they're hurting this country. It is wrong."

Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said GOP demands were causing the logjam on passing a government spending bill, adding that there would not be enough time to avert a shutdown without unanimous agreement in the chamber to quickly jump through some hurdles.

"It's frustrating because everybody knows this has to be done," he told NBC News on Wednesday. "Democrats are ready to go forward. We're just waiting for the Republicans."

"I would hope they would not" force a shutdown, he added.