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Congress averts shutdown despite vaccine rule protest. Utah Sen. Lee criticized for joining threat

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, right, leaves a private GOP lunch meeting as he continues to press for a vote on his proposal barring vaccine mandates that the Biden administration has
ordered for U.S. companies, at the Capitol in Washington Thursday.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, right, leaves a private GOP lunch meeting as he continues to press for a vote on his proposal barring vaccine mandates that the Biden administration has ordered for U.S. companies, at the Capitol in Washington Thursday. (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press)



Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

WASHINGTON — Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who was among a group of Senate Republicans who threatened to force a government shutdown in an effort to deny money to enforce President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate for large employers, blamed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for the potential shutdown that was ultimately avoided.

"I don't want to shut down the government," Lee said in an 11-minute speech on the Senate floor on Thursday. "The only thing I want to shut down is Congress funding enforcement of an immoral, unconstitutional vaccine mandate."

However, Lee said he also wouldn't back down.

"If the choice is between temporarily suspending nonessential functions on the one hand and on the other hand standing idle as up to 45 million Americans lose their jobs, their livelihoods, and their ability to work, I'll stand with American workers every time," Lee said.

But despite the threat of a government shutdown as some Republican senators including Lee planned to run out the clock before the federal government's funding was set to officially expire at midnight on Friday, House and Senate lawmakers on Thursday evening approved a stopgap spending bill, narrowly avoiding a shutdown.

A group of Senate conservatives planned to object to quick consideration of a stopgap measure to extend funding into early 2022 unless Democratic leaders agree to defund the vaccine mandate's enforcement, Politico reported. Because Senate rules require unanimous consent to move quickly before the Friday deadline, the senators believed they'd be able to drag out the process well beyond midnight.

"I'm sure we would all like to simplify the process for resolving the CR (continuous resolution), but I can't facilitate that without addressing the vaccine mandates," Lee told Politico in a statement.

"Given that federal courts across the country have raised serious issues with these mandates, it's not unreasonable for my Democratic colleagues to delay enforcement of the mandates for at least the length of the continuing resolution."

Ultimately, however, Senate leaders brokered an agreement that allowed Republicans to take a vote on an amendment proposed by Lee that sought to defund business vaccine mandates and those targeting military service members and federal employees, the Washington Post reported. The effort ultimately failed on a 48-50 vote. The Senate then adopted the final stopgap bill on a 69-28 vote. The House approved the bill earlier Thursday evening along party lines.

The vote came after Lee blamed Schumer for bringing Congress to the brink of a shutdown rather than the group of GOP senators who vowed to use all means possible to block funds that would enforce the president's vaccine mandates for large employers.

'Let's hold a vote'

Lee, in his floor speech on Thursday, said he's "not inclined to give consent to expedite a funding measure that supports and funds Biden's unconstitutional and sweeping vaccine mandate without holding a vote on that mandate."

Lee put the blame on Schumer, D-N.Y., saying he "could have done this without our help."

"If he had started this process weeks ago or even days ago, he could have held votes and passed this resolution without needing to ask for the help of those of us who feel this way, who are not inclined to help him do it," Lee said. "Sen. Schumer is in a bind due to his own delay or his own denial. He's asking all of us to help him."

Last month, Lee joined a group of GOP senators in signing a letter to Schumer in which "we made very clear that we 'will not support and use all means at our disposal to oppose legislation that funds or in any way allows the enforcement of President Biden's employer vaccine mandate,'" Lee said.

"After running out the clock — knowingly, deliberately, not coming to the table to negotiate, ignoring our clear public position — Sen. Schumer is now accusing us of wanting to shut down the government because we refuse to help them cram through a bill that we've already explicitly stated we're against," Lee said. "We're providing every opportunity to avoid a shutdown, and all we ask for is a simple up or down vote."

Lee accused Schumer of wanting "to avoid this vote so badly, that he will shut down the government rather than hold it."

"We can fix this situation right now. Let's hold a vote. Let's hold it right now," Lee said.

While Utah's other Republican senator, Sen. Mitt Romney, opposes Biden's workplace vaccine mandate and was among 50 GOP senators who filed a formal challenge to the rule, Romney didn't support resorting to a government shutdown.

"There's too much chaos in our country right now, too much concern about omicron," Romney said in a statement to the Deseret News on Thursday. "The last thing we need is more confusion and fear."

'Attention-seeking obstructionism'

One of Lee's political challengers, former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, was quick to denounce Lee role in the GOP threat to resort to a government shutdown.

"Senator Lee intends to shut down the government, blocking payments to our troops, weakening our national security, hurting vulnerable citizens and preventing civil servants from doing their jobs, while he still receives his own paycheck," McMullin said in a statement issued Wednesday.

"Real leaders and effective legislators work constructively to find solutions. Lee is once again acting as a destabilizing influence, choosing instead to engage opportunistically in attention-seeking obstructionism," McMullin added.

McMullin said "Lee's government shutdown" in 2013 cost the U.S. economy more than $20 billion "and accomplished nothing. His consistent inability to solve problems through more productive means and habit of causing chaos poorly serve Utah's interests."

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McMullin, who encourages Americans to get the COVID-19 vaccine, has called vaccine mandates "counterproductive," saying individuals and families should choose for themselves. But he disagrees with Lee's approach.

"After two terms in office, he should have the tools and relationships necessary to shape appropriate policy on this challenging matter without resorting to irresponsible stunts," McMullin said.

McMullin, in an interview with the Deseret News on Thursday, accused Lee of "playing politics again with a very important issue, and that is how the country is responding to this pandemic."

"The country needs leaders who will help us move past this pandemic," he said. "And I think the way to do it is to encourage people to receive the vaccine so they are protected ... and so that we can all get back to work," McMullin said. "It's not going to happen if we have leaders like Mike Lee focusing on shutting the government down rather than playing a constructive role in working with other members of the Senate to find a way forward."

McMullin said Lee's maneuvering is costing him Utah's political influence in the Senate.

"He doesn't have the trust of his colleagues and therefore he's unable to influence the policy discussion in any other way than to threaten shutdowns," McMullin said. "We as Utahns cannot afford to have a senator like him who lacks the necessary skills to do the job."

Criticism from Republican, Democratic challengers

Lee's other political challengers from both the Democratic and Republican parties also lined up Thursday to criticize the sitting senator.

"Sen. Lee's weaponized shutdowns have become all too common, demonstrating ineffective leadership and an unwillingness to do the job he was elected to do," former Utah Republican state lawmaker Becky Edwards said in a statement to the Deseret News. "Lee's 2013 shutdown cost taxpayers $24 billion. For a fiscal conservative, he's consistently shown to be an expensive liability to Utahns."

Another one of Lee's Republican challengers, Ally Isom, issued a statement Thursday saying Lee's actions show poor leadership.

"Shutdowns make for great political theater, but it's clearly poor leadership," Isom said. "Utahns know this isn't a game. This just raises the stakes and makes Washington worse."

One of Lee's Democratic challengers, Nick Mitchell, issued a statement Thursday saying Lee's effort "showcases his obstructionist ways and ineffective leadership," calling Lee an "embarrassment to Utah."

"As politicians, it's our job to develop solutions to problems, not create them," Mitchell said. "The plans of Mike Lee are the desperate throes of a man who sees his political career coming to an end. Utah and America deserve a better class of leadership."

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Katie McKellar

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