With government funding set to run out in a matter of days, a group of hardline Republicans are once again ready to shut it all down—this time, in the name of blocking President Joe Biden’s efforts to mandate the COVID vaccine for federal workers.
But even if they manage to force a shutdown over the weekend, this maneuver won’t actually result in the change these conservatives want. And yet, that’s not really the point.
Conservatives are only able to shut down the government because Democratic leaders didn’t leave themselves enough time to pass a funding bill through the normal process, which takes at least a few days if senators insist on running out the clock on all debate time. That means the Senate is relying on “unanimous consent” to fast-track the stopgap spending bill. But a few conservative senators don’t look apt to go along with those agreements.
Without every senator on board, Democrats can’t pass a funding bill in time to avoid a shutdown, even if a number of Republicans want to keep the government open. That leaves conservatives in the position of having power for a few days—just enough time to make a point, raise some money, and prepare for the real battle.
Opposition to Biden’s policies to require federal workers to get vaccinated—and compel private companies to vaccinate their workers—is intense among conservatives. The party’s lawmakers have acted accordingly, and their action against the mandates has provided a convenient way to win over the base without explicitly advocating against vaccines.
Republicans have already fundraised off their anti-mandate opposition, including the Senate GOP’s official campaign arm, which began running ads on Facebook on Tuesday urging people to support the fight against Biden’s “authoritarian” vaccine mandates.
Leveraging the minority’s biggest threat—a shutdown—to advance the anti-mandate push will be catnip for these lawmakers’ constituencies, translating into donations and clout on social media that will have an impact long after the government reopens.
So it’s not shocking that conservatives are looking ahead, and treating this doomed fight as a warm-up to turn upcoming legislative fights into referendums on Biden’s vaccine mandate policy.
But there’s actually more to the shutdown than a cynical ploy for fundraising and clout.
According to a senior GOP aide familiar with the strategy, conservatives are eyeing the annual authorization of defense spending—which will have to pass both chambers with some GOP support—as the real avenue for their push. This shutdown, it seems, is more about gathering troops for the actual legislative battle.
Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) told The Daily Beast he “absolutely” thinks funding for enforcing vaccine mandates in the defense spending bill could be the next front, insisting Biden is “abusing his executive authority” to further his political aims.
The prospect of a prolonged conservative revolt over vaccine mandates may cause headaches for Democrats looking to speedily pass legislation. Ironically, however, it may end up causing more headaches for Republicans.
On Wednesday, there was disarray within the Senate GOP ranks: not even all conservatives, much less moderates, are on board with the mandate protest strategy. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), a staunch member of the MAGA wing, told POLITICO that it was “all talk” and said the courts were the appropriate venue to contest the policy.
Proponents of the maneuver, like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), may take an off-ramp in the form of a symbolic vote on an amendment opposing mandates. But it’s unlikely their more raucous House colleagues will accept that outcome.
Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-GA) tweeted on Wednesday that “anything less” than stopping the funding resolution “is unacceptable and unAmerican.”
Regardless of how far the push goes, there’s reason to believe it will be a political loser for the GOP. Their hardcore supporters might loathe vaccine mandates, but the voters the party must win over to recapture the House and Senate majorities in 2022 may not.
On Wednesday morning, House Republicans convened for a political strategy meeting focused on messaging for the 2022 midterms. According to a source familiar with the meeting, staff for the party’s House campaign arm said that while they had not recently polled the issue of vaccine mandates, that’s only because they had already found it was not a top priority for voters in key swing districts.
The House GOP strategists, the source recalled, said the mandate issue might galvanize voters in heavily Republican districts but that the economy and immigration provided the best messaging opportunities for the party in the districts they need to flip.
Democrats, meanwhile, were flabbergasted that of all the hills to die on, Republicans would threaten to shut down the entire government in order to halt a policy meant to protect more Americans against a deadly disease.
When asked about the GOP’s threats, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) burst into laughter.
“Make sure you write that laugh,” he told The Daily Beast. “Some of the things that come from the Republican Party are just beyond my understanding of what right and wrong is.”
Democratic operatives also said the anti-mandate push only reinforces their core 2022 argument that Republicans won’t be able to move the country past the pandemic.
The continued threat of the virus was on full display Wednesday. As Republicans pushed to shut the government down over efforts to protect the workforce, the first recorded case of the highly transmissible Omicron variant was recorded in California.
“This just reinforces that the GOP is anti-vax, while most Americans are anti-COVID,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist.
While the push for a shutdown has come centerstage in recent days, it’s a manifestation of a month’s-worth of angling from the right flank of congressional Republicans.
Eleven Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS), in the early days of November warned leadership in a letter that funds for vaccine mandates in government funding could cause a hubbub.
“Please be advised (many weeks in advance of the current spending period, which ends on December 3, 2021) that we will 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,” the letter read.
And House GOP members slowly planted their spin on the issue on social media, with outspoken members like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) imploring Senate Republicans to “stand strong” in forcing a shutdown if there’s no guarantee government funds won’t support the vaccine mandates.
While the continuing resolution is still likely to pass the House—where only a simple majority is required—the Senate would need unanimous consent for the legislation to be passed by the end of Friday, when government funding runs out. Marshall told reporters on Wednesday that he’s pinning the fate of the funding on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
“As long as he makes sure we don't fund the unconstitutional mandate, we'll be okay with unanimous consent. So it's totally on his back,” Marshall said.
Democrats, of course, are unmoved by an argument that the public will blame them for a weekend government shutdown over their unwillingness to defund vaccine mandates. And there’s clearly hesitation from GOP leaders to support the effort.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) hasn’t shown any inclination to back the conservative push, and he insisted publicly on Wednesday he did not expect a shutdown.
McConnell is perhaps the GOP’s most prominent vaccine promoter and has been more circumspect about vaccine mandates than his House counterpart, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
All 50 Senate Republicans, McConnell included, have signed on to a symbolic effort led by Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) to undo Biden’s mandates. But that doesn’t mean a critical mass would support shutting down the government to make it happen.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, warned on Wednesday, “I’ve seen shutdowns… I think it’s something that ought to be avoided, if you could.”