In this file photo, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Policy Conference at the U.S. Capitol Visitor’s Center Auditorium June 27, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Thursday sent the president a three-week government funding bill that gives negotiators more time to reach agreement on a full-year spending package — avoiding a potential shutdown just one day away.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told States Newsroom that negotiators can wrap up the 12 annual government funding bills by a new March 11 deadline and avert yet another short-term patch.
“We’ve been working almost every weekend for months,” Leahy, a Democrat, said. “As long as people don’t try to get crazy, I think, we can do it.”
Thursday’s 65-27 vote on the short-term funding bill came after Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn relented in her objections to a new federal program that would provide drug paraphernalia aimed at reducing the spread of disease. Blackburn had expressed concerns the grant program could include glass smoking devices, known as crack pipes.
Blackburn held up the bill, and Republicans mounted a heated debate over whether federal funding should be used for the program.
In the end senators didn’t have to take a vote on the new grant program, but Republicans did secure votes on amendments to eliminate federal vaccine mandates and balance the budget.
The Senate ultimately voted to reject three GOP proposals Thursday evening before sending the short-term funding measure to President Joe Biden for his signature.
The first amendment, from Utah Sen. Mike Lee, would have barred the federal government from enforcing vaccine mandates on federal employees, U.S. government contractors, members of the military and health care workers in offices that participate in Medicare or Medicaid.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s amendment would have barred the federal government from sending money to schools that require COVID-19 vaccines.
An amendment from Indiana’s Mike Braun would have prevented the Senate from taking up a budget that doesn’t balance by the end of the 10-year budget window.
The delay on the funding measure, needed to avoid a government shutdown when current funding authority expires on Friday at midnight, began last week when Blackburn placed her hold on the bill.
Blackburn lifted her hold Tuesday, “after she received an answer in writing from HHS committing that no taxpayer dollars will be used to fund crack pipes,” according to her spokesman.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, however, said Thursday that letter showed how complicated the new initiative is and asked the Senate to quickly pass a bill he’s sponsoring to bar taxpayer dollars from going to glass smoking devices.
“They don’t plan on sending crack pipes or meth pipes to anybody. What they plan on sending is what they call a mouthpiece,” Rubio said. “The mouthpiece is basically the cylindrical tube, a straw-looking thing, that you attach to the crack pipe. So the pipe will have to be shared by the addicts, but they’re each going to have their own little tube that they can attach to smoke it.”
“I just don’t think the federal government should be paying for that, to send that to people. I think, frankly, this is insane,” Rubio continued.
Leahy objected to Rubio’s unanimous consent request, blocking the bill from going to the House.
The kits, part of a new program from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration within the Health and Human Services Department, are part of a $30 million program that would provide grants to organizations for so-called harm reduction kits.
Those groups can provide various items from a pre-approved list that includes FDA-approved overdose reversal medication, safe sex kits, syringes and infectious disease testing kits, among other items.
Blackburn and several other Republican senators cited claims by some conservative outlets that the safe smoking kits would include glass smoking devices.
“It would be absolutely absurd to send government-funded drug paraphernalia to underserved communities,” she said in a statement last week.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and the Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Dr. Rahul Gupta rebuffed the claims, saying in a statement last week that “no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits.”
They noted the Biden administration is setting up the grant program as part of a comprehensive plan that includes “proven harm reduction strategies like providing naloxone, fentanyl test strips, and clean syringes, as well as taking decisive actions to go after violent criminals who are trafficking illicit drugs like fentanyl across our borders and into our communities.”
Blackburn’s hold remained through Tuesday evening, though other Republican calls for amendment votes delayed a final Senate vote on the three-week spending bill until Thursday evening.
Democratic absences in the U.S. Senate
Senate Democrats would normally have held votes quickly to reject the Republican amendments. But the absences of at least two Democratic senators Thursday meant there was a possibility at least one of the proposals would have been added to the bill.
If any amendment had been adopted, the short-term funding bill would be sent back to the House, likely causing a funding lapse since that chamber is out of session until Feb. 28.
There was also no guarantee the House could have passed the measure with the Cruz or Lee amendments added. Many of the 221 House Democrats who originally voted for the short-term patch would likely not support it with the GOP provisions attached.
Lee and Cruz were tweeting Thursday afternoon urging all of their Republican colleagues to stay in Washington, D.C., as a recess loomed, a strategy they said could lead to their amendments being added to the bill.
Lee wrote that Senate Republicans had “a very real chance of defunding” Biden’s “remaining vaccine mandates IF every Republican stays for the vote.”
Cruz followed up in a tweet of his own, saying that “The only way Dems win the vote is if Rs skip town.”
Enough Republican senators eventually left that the Senate was able to hold the amendment votes without any real risk of altering the bill.
Senators rejected the Lee amendment 46-47, the Cruz amendment 44-49 and the Braun amendment 47-45. The Braun amendment needed at least 60 senators to vote for it in order to be added.
The short-term government funding bill is the third stopgap spending bill since the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.
It’s designed to keep the federal government running on spending levels last agreed to during the Trump administration while Democrats and Republicans negotiate the first appropriations package of Biden’s presidency.
Negotiators reached a “framework” agreement earlier this month, a significant step forward that will allow the dozen subcommittees to begin working on bipartisan full-year government funding bills.
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