By Susan Cornwell and David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Leading Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate scrambled on Wednesday to head off the threat of a partial federal government shutdown posed by Republicans opposed to President Joe Biden's COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Congress has until midnight on Friday to pass a measure that would continue funding federal government operations during the pandemic, amid concerns about a new rise in COVID-19 cases and the arrival of the Omicron variant in the United States.
A partial government shutdown would create a political embarrassment for both parties, but especially for Biden's Democrats who narrowly control both chambers of Congress.
Top lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives have yet to agree on a resolution that Congress could vote on.
Once a measure is set and passed by the House, all 100 senators would need to agree to circumvent Senate rules and pass such a measure before the Friday deadline.
That effort ran into opposition on Wednesday from a group of hardline conservative Senate Republicans, including Mike Lee, Roger Marshall, Ron Johnson and Ted Cruz, who demanded a vote on a measure to block federal money for Biden's vaccine mandates for federal and private sector employees, which they say put U.S. jobs at risk.
"The federal government needs to feel the pressure of what a vaccine mandate really does," Marshall told reporters.
Marshall said the group wants to see language barring vaccine mandate funding in the resolution to keep the government open but would also accept a vote on a separate amendment.
"We should use the leverage we have to fight against what are illegal, unconstitutional and abusive mandates," Cruz said.
Schumer told reporters that talks with McConnell to iron out an agreement were making "good progress" but acknowledged the possibility of a shutdown if the Senate was forced to observe procedural rules that would require a series of votes.
"We'll have total chaos. It's up to the leaders on both sides to make sure that doesn’t happen," Schumer told reporters.
McConnell did not seem overly concerned. "We're going to be okay," he told reporters.
Senator Kevin Cramer said the vast majority of his fellow Republicans are not in favor of forcing a shutdown.
"What's the outcome that you achieve? The government shuts down and you still don't have a vaccination mandate lifted,” Cramer said.
The House had been expected to vote as early as Wednesday on a funding resolution.
But negotiations between the two parties remained stalled over issues including how long to continue to fund the government. Democrats want to extend current funding levels until January and then pass new spending bills, while Republicans have urged a delay until later in the spring, a move that would leave spending at levels agreed to when Republican Donald Trump was president.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Morgan, Additional reporting by Moira Warburton; Editing by Scott Malone, Andrea Ricci and Alistair Bell)