WASHINGTON — Some Republicans are growing increasingly concerned about the political ramifications if a few conservative senators shut the government down to crusade against Covid-19 vaccine mandates.
The intraparty clash pits most of the Senate GOP caucus against a trio of members — Sens. Mike Lee, of Utah; Ted Cruz, of Texas; and Roger Marshall, of Kansas — who are insisting the Senate vote on a provision to block vaccine mandates.
"Even though 96 percent of Republicans do not want to have it, it'll be Republicans that will be blamed for it. And that's very unfortunate," said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., who argued that Democrats want the GOP to suffer the political pain. "Some of my Republican colleagues are playing right into their hands. And if we have a shutdown, it could be an extended shutdown."
Democrats see that demand as untenable. President Joe Biden, who has praised vaccines as the way out of the pandemic, is unlikely to sign any bill that reverses his mandates. Shutting the government down would bring nonessential services to a halt but — if the administration gets its way — be unlikely to curb the agencies that are currently responding to the pandemic.
Forcing a government shutdown to pressure Democrats to pass policies they would not otherwise support is a tactic Republicans have attempted unsuccessfully before, most notably in 2013 under a Cruz-led effort to block the Affordable Care Act.
This time, the three Republicans are outnumbered in their own party. But to avert a shutdown, the Senate will need unanimous approval, meaning a single lawmaker can slow the process and drag it out beyond the Friday night deadline.
The House appeared set to pass the bill, which would keep the government funded through Feb. 18, Thursday afternoon. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell maintained his optimism, telling reporters a shutdown would be avoided: "We're not going to do that."
Still, as Senate Republicans met Thursday for lunch, there was little indication that the three senators pushing the vaccine provision would back down. Lee said he wants a vote on the amendment at a "simple majority" threshold.
Cruz held firm, saying "pissant" politicians must not require people to get the Covid-19 vaccine.
"I think it's wrong. It's an abuse of power. It's threatening the jobs of millions of Americans," he said.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said he also opposes the vaccine mandate but called the effort by Cruz and others a fruitless exercise that could cause unnecessary harm.
"If I thought this was going to stop the mandate, I would consider this measure. But it's not," he said. "I have argued against shutting down the government. I think it's just going to needlessly scare our people."
"Do I think this is good politics? No," he said.
Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said Democrats have been struggling to pass their own priorities and if there's a shutdown, it could "change the dynamic of the story" to the GOP's detriment.
"When it comes to shutting the government down for a particular reason, we generally end up with egg on our face," Braun said. "Regardless of the merits of the case, we get blamed for it."
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said his goal is "getting something accomplished" and the fact that courts have the put the mandate on hold is "adequate." Other Republicans noted they can use a separate vehicle in the Senate to try to block the vaccine mandate.
The tactic evokes the 2013 government shutdown, which was similarly fueled by demands from Cruz, then a first-term senator, to block the Affordable Care Act by demanding it be included in a must-pass funding bill. It led to a 16-day government shutdown and did not achieve the goal. Polls showed Republicans took the brunt of the blame, although that didn't stop them from big victories in the following year's midterm elections.
Cassidy said he expects a shutdown — if one were to occur now — to be shorter, noting the Senate could wait out the right-wing objectors.
"It's over the weekend. There are essential services that will continue, and those are the only ones that continue on the weekend," he said. "And by Monday, no one will notice a difference."
Marshall's predecessor, Pat Roberts, a Republican who served in the chamber for 24 years and retired in January, visited the Capitol on Thursday and sought to talk him out of it.
"It's always counterproductive. It's a loser," Roberts told NBC News. "I just told Roger. I said get off that. Make your point, but you don't want to shut the government."
"There's some kind of a strange notoriety that some new members get: 'Oh, man, if I could just make my point by shutting down the government, wow,'" he said. "You make virtually everybody mad at you."