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Avoiding a government shutdown is one of a number of urgent priorities Congress must deal with before Christmas

Washington (AFP) - The US Congress approved a stopgap funding bill Thursday in a rare show of cross-party unity to keep federal agencies running into 2022 and avert a costly holiday season government shutdown.

With the clock ticking down to the 11:59 pm Friday deadline, the Senate voted by 69 to 28 to keep the lights on until February 18 with a resolution that had already advanced from the House.

The "continuing resolution" avoids millions of public workers being sent home unpaid with Christmas approaching, as parks, museums and other federal properties and services closed.

"I am glad that, in the end, cooler heads prevailed -- the government will stay open," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

"And I thank the members of this chamber for walking us back from the brink of an avoidable, needless and costly shutdown."

Congress watchers had expected to see the resolution getting a rough ride in the Senate, where a small group of hardline Republicans threatened to tank the measure in protest over the White House's pandemic response.

But Democrats agreed to allow a straight majority vote on defunding President Joe Biden's vaccine-or-testing mandate for large companies, which promptly failed as expected.

The right-wing Republican group, led by Utah's senior senator Mike Lee, argues that the mandate is an assault on personal liberty.

780,000 Dead

The pandemic has killed more than 780,000 people in the United States and the troubling new Omicron variant of the coronavirus has raised fears of a winter surge in cases.

But legal challenges have mounted against Biden's edict requiring vaccination or weekly tests for some sections of the US workforce, including companies with more than 100 employees.

Lee had campaigned to remove federal funding to implement the mandate and was backed by right wingers in both chambers.

"If the choice is between temporarily suspending non-essential 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," he said.

The figure Lee cited would represent more than a quarter of the 157 million people that make up the US workforce, according to the Pew Research Center.

Only five percent of unvaccinated adults say they have left a job due to a vaccine mandate, according to an October survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In the evenly divided upper chamber, any single senator can torpedo any vote.

But the majority of Senate Republicans -- including their leader Mitch McConnell -- were against the move, fearing they would be blamed for a shutdown.

Ahead of the House vote McConnell had indicated that Republicans would support the continuing resolution, although he gave no indication that he bring Lee and the other hold-outs to heel.

Deadlocked

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most senior Democrat in the House of Representatives, earlier hit out at Lee and his backers, accusing them of "defiance of science and public health."

If Congress had failed to keep the government open, the closures would have begun just after midnight on Saturday and would likely have bled into the following week.

There has never been a shutdown during a national emergency such as the pandemic, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the 2018-19 stoppage wiped $11 billion from the economy.

The stopgap measure buys legislators time to negotiate full-year spending bills for the rest of fiscal 2022.

And with the threat of a shutdown off the table, Democratic leadership is now free to focus on passing Biden's domestic agenda -- a $1.8 trillion social welfare and climate spending plan.

The bill is central to Biden's legacy, but risks failing because of feuding between the Democrats' progressive and centrist factions.

Lawmakers are also deadlocked over the prospect of a first-ever US debt default that would erase an estimated six million jobs and wipe out $15 trillion of household wealth, tanking the economy.

The government is likely to run out of cash on or soon after December 15, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned, unless Congress raises the federal borrowing cap.

But Republicans say they won't help, despite having pressed for hikes under former president Donald Trump, because they want no part in the Democrats' historically large package of social reforms.

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