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Republican senators threaten government shutdown over vaccine mandates

US lawmakers scrambled to avert a government shutdown on Thursday after Republicans threatened to torpedo a funding deal in protest at the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates.

Several Republican senators, including Roger Marshall of Kansas and Mike Lee of Utah, have threatened to hold up debate on a deal and risk a shutdown as soon as this weekend if their demands to block new federal Covid-19 rules for big businesses are not met.

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.

The House of Representatives on Thursday evening passed a stop-gap measure in a 221-212 vote, largely along party lines, to continue funding the US government until February 18.

The so-called “continuing resolution” would avert a shutdown that would leave hundreds of thousands of federal employees out of work. But the measure faces a more uncertain future in the Senate, which also needs to pass the bill and send it to President Joe Biden for signing into law before midnight on Friday to avoid disruptions.

After delivering a speech on Thursday on fresh measures to combat the Omicron coronavirus variant, Biden 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 Biden administration’s vaccine mandate would affect an estimated 80m private sector workers. The White House has already directed federal employees and contractors to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Rosa DeLauro, the Democrat who chairs the House appropriations committee, and Richard Shelby, the Republican chair of the Senate appropriations committee, said earlier on Thursday that they had struck a deal on a stop-gap measure that would delay a potential crisis for another two months.

DeLauro said the deal included no big changes to existing spending, bar an additional $7bn in federal funds for Afghan refugees.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the measure later in the day, sending it to the Senate, which is split 50-50, for further consideration.

A handful of Republican lawmakers could hold up debate on the stop-gap measure, or continuing resolution, by invoking the filibuster. Marshall, Lee and others have threatened to do so unless lawmakers agree to defund the Covid rules for big businesses.

Several Republican senators on Thursday suggested they would demand a separate, simple majority vote on the vaccine mandates. But it also remains unclear whether Democratic congressional leadership would agree to such a vote, given Joe Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, has refused to commit to backing the mandates.

The Republicans’ objections come amid growing concerns in the US about the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant. Biden announced on Thursday a range of measures intended to slow the spread of the virus, including free at-home Covid-19 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 president’s desire to build a wall along the US border with Mexico. That stand-off lasted 35 days, making it the longest shutdown in US history.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, criticised Republicans on Thursday, saying: “How do they explain to the public that they are shutting down 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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