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With Omicron in US, GOP Hard-Liners Are Still Trying to Thwart Vaccine Mandates

A government shutdown over COVID protections looms — even as a concerning new variant spreads.

Sen. Ron Johnson speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill, on September 14, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The current federal spending agreement that funds many operations of government is set to expire at midnight on Friday. Absent a new deal, or at least a vote to kick the can down the road a bit, much of the federal government will shut down, again. M*A*S*H didn’t get this many reruns.

The last one ran 35 days, from December 22, 2018, to January 25, 2019, and happened because then-President Donald Trump wanted to staple funding for his draconian border wall to the government funding appropriations bill. Democrats balked, and Trump ultimately backed down. Immediately after the shutdown ended, Trump declared a “state of emergency” during a spectacularly ludicrous Rose Garden aria, and proceeded to plunder Army funds to continue wall construction. Those were the days, right?

Nearly three years later, and the circus is back in town. This time, it’s a clot of 15 Senate Republicans that includes Roger Marshall, Ron Johnson, Mike Lee and Ted “Green Eggs And” Cruz driving the bus to wherever the hell they think this is all going to wind up. The beef this time? President Biden’s vaccine mandates, which have already been stalled by a Trump-appointed judge in Louisiana, and so technically don’t really exist.

This fight has been growling low within congressional GOP circles since early November, and has burst open as the deadline looms. The House Freedom Caucus, a.k.a. Donald Trump’s sweat towel, is all for taking the shutdown deadline hostage, but lacks the numbers to pull it off in that chamber. The Senate, however, is another matter. With the 50-50 split, any GOP senator can locate their Inner Manchin and bollix the deal.

“We’re opposed to the mandate,” Johnson told reporters yesterday. “We don’t want the federal government to be able to fund them in any way shape or form.” Cruz offered a concurrent opinion: “I think we should use the leverage we have to fight against what are illegal, unconstitutional and abusive mandates from a president and an administration that knows they are violating the law.”

A deal was reached on Thursday morning between House and Senate leadership on a stopgap spending measure that will punt a shutdown to February 18. The House appears prepared to pass this stopgap by the close of business today, but the anti-mandate faction in the Senate seems ready to play this out to the end. This, to say the least, has many Senate Republicans in a state of distress.

Burgess Everett, Politico’s co-congressional bureau chief, was covering a GOP Senate lunch on Wednesday where the mandate/shutdown strategy was discussed. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was present, but offered no support for the plan. “Mitch did not say a word,” reported Burgess. “He ate his chicken. He ate 2 pieces.”

“I just don’t quite understand the strategy or the play of leverage for a mandate that’s been stayed by 10 courts,” Sen. Kevin Cramer told Politico. “I don’t think shutdowns benefit people, like some folks think they do,” opined Sen. John Cornyn. “I’m pleased that we have finally reached an agreement on the continuing resolution,” added Sen. Richard Shelby.

Cramer, Cornyn and Shelby are not what you’d call wobbly pseudo-conservatives, and when you include Mitch and his mouthful of mute chicken, what we have here is the table-setting for a good old-fashioned GOP intra-party rhubarb just as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has entered the chat.

“If there is a shutdown, it will be a Republican, anti-vaccine shutdown,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer said from the floor of the chamber. Thumper of a line there, Chuck; your speechwriter should get a free bowl of soup for conjuring such stirring rhetoric in this time of crisis. Others, fortunately, were more eloquent in their disdain. Jake Johnson of Common Dreams reports:

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who represents more federal employees than any other member of the House, said in a statement late Wednesday afternoon that “Republicans’ plan to shut down the government on purpose to sabotage our pandemic response is extraordinarily cynical and dangerous.”

“Vaccines are keeping Americans alive, and they represent the best possible tool we have to fight this pandemic,” said Beyer. “Countering vaccination efforts at what may prove one of the most critical moments of the pandemic, with the discovery of a concerning new variant, could have disastrous consequences for the American people and the recovering U.S. economy.”

The Virginia Democrat went on to warn that a shutdown would “inflict unnecessary hardship and fear on the families of millions of federal workers and contractors” and “demonstrate to our allies and our adversaries that our government can be stopped from functioning by a handful of ideologues who only care about appeasing the most radical elements in their political base.”

“Anti-science Republicans are demanding a choice between a return to the unchecked spread of Covid we had under the previous administration and the bungled, self-destructive governance that led to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history,” Beyer continued. “Neither of these alternatives is acceptable — Republicans must do their jobs and allow a vote on legislation to avert a shutdown.”

That, Mr. Schumer, is how you do that.

A government shutdown over COVID protections as a new and potentially destructive variant rises strikes me as an incredibly weird way to derail what can only be described as white-hot Republican political momentum, yet here we are with less than 36 hours to go. The lights go out at midnight on Friday. I hope Mitch brought some leftovers home from that Wednesday lunch. The Capitol mess may be closed for a while.

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