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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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President Joe Biden

Washington (AFP) - President Joe Biden announced Thursday a winter campaign against Covid-19, with new testing requirements for travelers and a surge in vaccination efforts as the new Omicron variant threatens to revive the pandemic.

Biden has brought steady leadership after the chaotic Donald Trump years, but the mutating coronavirus continues to defy him, helping drive his approval ratings deep underwater.

Urging the nation -- in particular his political rivals -- to unite behind the strategy, Biden unveiled a raft of actions designed to tamp down Covid-19 in the coming months, as the latest Omicron variant spreads worldwide.

"It's a plan that I think should unite us," Biden said, speaking from the headquarters of the National Institutes of Health in a Washington suburb.

"I know Covid-19 has been very divisive. In this country, it's become a political issue," he added. "A sad, sad commentary. It shouldn't be, but it has been."

Nine cases of the new strain have so far been confirmed in the United States, including five in New York announced Thursday evening by state Governor Kathy Hochul, and one in the Pacific island state of Hawaii.

The Hawaii case and one in Minnesota both involved residents with no recent international travel history, signaling the strain is already circulating inside the country.

"This is a case of community spread. The individual has no history of travel," the Hawaii Health Department said in a statement about the island's confirmed Omicron case.

Biden's updated actions include the requirement that all inbound international travelers be tested within one day of flying.

This will apply to all travelers, both American and foreign, regardless of vaccination status, a US official said.

For domestic travelers, Biden will announce he is extending a mask mandate on airplanes, trains and other public transport through mid-March.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters testing and vaccine requirements could eventually be added to domestic flights too. "Nothing is off the table," she said.

The barrage of measures is partly meant to reassure Americans that Biden is doing everything possible to prevent the pandemic from derailing the impressive US economic recovery -- and the winter holidays.

In addition to his public rollout, Biden penned a column for the Friday edition of the large-circulation USA Today national newspaper to assuage Americans' "unease" about the new variant and Covid in general.

"We will beat it back with science and speed, not chaos and confusion -– just as we did in the spring and again with the more powerful delta variant in the summer and fall," the president wrote.

Biden and his aides have recently stressed there will be no return to mass shutdowns.

But the White House also faces the challenge that many Americans are not receptive to Biden's appeals for collective action.

Despite ever-more creative attempts to encourage people to get their shots, about 40 percent of the country have yet to be fully vaccinated, and booster rates are lagging too.

Nationwide Campaign

Biden said a surge in outreach on vaccines and booster shots was being launched, with a nationwide campaign targeting recipients of Medicare public health care. The government will team up with AARP, a large lobbying group representing people aged 50 and over.

At the other end of the age scale, the Biden administration will try to ensure that schools do not return to mass lockdowns.

"We're expanding our efforts to vaccinate children, ages five and up," said Biden. "For any parent worried about the Omicron variant or the Delta variant, get your child vaccinated at one of the 35,000 locations in the country."

In another bolstering of existing policies, the White House will encourage the use of home testing kits by announcing that health insurance must cover 100 percent of the cost.

For those without health insurance, there will be an increase in the availability of free kits.

The kits currently sell for around $25, as opposed to being available either for free or at nominal costs among peer nations in Europe.

Meanwhile, the White House stressed that the administration's restrictions on travelers from eight southern African countries over growing Omicron fears was not a "punishment" to those nations but a safety measure.

"We of course are in close touch at a diplomatic level with leaders in these countries about the steps we're taking," Psaki said, referring to the ban imposed last week on US arrivals from South Africa, Botswana and other nations.

"It's not meant to be a punishment," she added. "It is steps recommended by our public health officials and medical experts in order to delay the spread of a variant."