WASHINGTON - Congress is once again racing to avoid another government shutdown.
While Democratic and Republican leaders earlier this week said both sides were making progress to keep the lights on for at least a few more weeks, a partial shutdown could begin at 12:01 a.m. Saturday if the two sides don't reach agreement in time.
The problem isn't that there aren't enough votes to pass a funding bill. It's that any serious objection in either chamber could delay passage, thereby forcing a shutdown for up to several days.
Lawmakers disagree over how long an extension should last. There's also pressure from a group of Republican lawmakers who are threatening to hold up the bill because they object to a Biden administration mandate on workplace vaccinations.
President Joe Biden announced last month a policy that large businesses (those with 100 or more employees) require workers to be vaccinated against COVID or be regularly tested. Noncompliant businesses could face penalties of nearly $14,000 per violation under an emergency Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule made public this month and slated to take effect Jan. 4.
More: Workers face Jan. 4 deadline as Biden rolls out COVID-19 vaccine rules for large businesses
Some Republicans want to use vaccine mandate as leverage
Although a federal appeals court blocked the implementation of the rule, several GOP lawmakers in both chambers of Congress are vowing to hold up any appropriations bill to keep government open unless it contains language preventing the administration from implementing the vaccine mandate.
The Senate is waiting for the House to act first. But there is currentlyno indication of when the vote would take place in the lower chamber. A vote had not been scheduled as of Wednesday.
The right-wing House Freedom Caucus sent a letter to Senate Republicans on Wednesday, asking leadership to delay the measure beyond Friday's looming deadline until they get a commitment that Congress won't fund the administration's vaccine mandates.
"As you know, the current government funding mechanism expires on Friday night, thus the Senate Republican conference enjoys important leverage against those mandates," the House Freedom Caucus wrote in a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "We therefore write to request that you use all procedural tools at your disposal to deny timely passage of the CR unless it prohibits funding - in all respects - for the vaccine mandates and enforcement thereof."
Procedurally, in order to make the deadline, the legislation - a continuing resolution or CR - could pass the Senate on a voice vote, but a single senator's objection would force a delay.
Negotiators face a real possibility that could happen, as several Republicans on Wednesday slammed the mandates.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, told reporters he "can't facilitate" a funding resolution "without addressing the vaccine mandates."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told reporters he is "not particularly invested in the timing of a given vote - whether it occurs a few hours early or a few hours later - but 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."
In November, Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., wrote a letter to Senate leaders on the issue.
"This is wrong - morally, legally, and constitutionally," Marshall wrote about the proposed mandate. "Accordingly, we will oppose all efforts to implement and enforce it with every tool at our disposal, including our votes on spending measures considered by the Senate."
The letter, updated on Wednesday, was signed by 14 other senators, including Lee.
More: Federal government may shut down this week. Here's how that could affect you.
Asked about the objections raised by Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday he and McConnell, R-Ky., are working to reach a compromise that could pass the Senate.
"Every member can get up and say, I want to shut down unless I get my way on something. And we'll see what happens," he told Capitol Hill reporters. "It's up to the leaders to make sure there's not a shutdown. I'm making sure, and I think Leader McConnell wants to try to make sure too. Let's hope."
If any senator objects to a quick vote before Friday, there could be a shutdown through the weekend.
However, McConnell has said he expects to avoid one.
"I think we'll get there, and certainly nobody should be concerned about a government shutdown," he told reporters Tuesday.
A day later, McConnell remained optimistic: "I think we're going to be OK."
It is not yet clear when a deal will be reached between leaders and when either chamber will vote.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., had indicated earlier this week he wanted a vote in the House by Wednesday. But by Tuesday, things looked bleak, and Hoyer blamed the Senate.
"We're waiting for the Senate to decide what date they can agree on, which is ridiculous," he said. "The government is going to shut down in 72 hours, and they can't get their act together."
On Wednesday, Hoyer told reporters: "It's incomprehensible to me that we can't pass a simple CR."
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What happens in a government shutdown?
Congress has faced shutdowns several times before.
In late September, Congress averted a shutdown at the 11th hour by passing a continuing resolution that keeps the government funded through Dec. 3.
The last government shutdown happened in Donald Trump's presidency. It lasted 35 days, starting Dec. 21, 2018. It followed brief shutdowns in January and February 2018.
A shutdown would furlough hundreds of thousands of nonessential federal employees, such as clerks, custodial staff, park rangers and white-collar managers, forcing them to take time off without pay. Essential functions such as the military, law enforcement and air traffic control would continue. Federally funded agencies and facilities like the national parks, Smithsonian museums and IRS offices would close.
Although federal workers affected by the shutdown face a loss of pay, Congress has traditionally made sure those employees receive back pay.
The delayed action on funding the government also pushes lawmakers up against a separate cliff: addressing the debt ceiling. If it is not raised by Dec. 15, the U.S. would default for the first time.
On default: The US has never defaulted before. In the debt ceiling crisis, what happens if it does?
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Government shutdown: Here's what we know ahead of Dec. 3 deadline