Congressional Republicans on Wednesday ratcheted up their attempts to repeal President Joe Biden’s vaccine and testing mandates, adopting a measure in the Senate to unwind policies that the White House and top public health officials see as critical to combating the coronavirus.
The intensifying campaign mirrored in spirit the political and legal battles that GOP officials waged earlier in the pandemic, as they attacked business closures, mask mandates and other government-led measures to slow the contagion. With vaccines, Republicans on Capitol Hill argued that the requirements are unwarranted and unconstitutional, putting Americans’ jobs at risk.
In their most public, forceful protest to date, Republicans led by Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana muscled to passage a proposal that aims to repeal the Biden administration’s proposals ordering large private businesses to require vaccination or implement comprehensive coronavirus testing for their workers.
Braun’s legislative push hinged on a congressional process that allows lawmakers to review, and potentially revoke, federal agency regulations. The tactic allowed the GOP to take its bill to the Senate floor, even though Democrats control the chamber, where it later passed on a 52-to-48 vote. Two Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin, W.Va., and Jon Tester, Mont., also joined the GOP in trying to scrap the mandates.
The repeal still could face an uphill battle in the House, and it would see a certain veto if it ever reached Biden’s desk, but some Republicans this week signaled that they plan to accelerate their efforts in the days ahead anyway. Another group of GOP lawmakers, led by Sen. Roger Marshall, Kan., is already preparing a second measure that aims to scrap Biden’s vaccine mandate for medical professionals, the lawmaker revealed this week to The Washington Post.
“We have to be able to communicate, to walk and chew gum, and explain to people both pieces of the puzzle,” said Marshall, adding that he supports vaccination but also believes the government should not require it in the private sector.
Many Democrats, meanwhile, blasted the vote as irresponsible, especially because the Biden administration’s rules open the door for employers to administer tests on a weekly basis for those who do not want a vaccine. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., at one point on Wednesday likened the motivations behind the repeal effort to those who insist the Earth is flat.
“I know wild stories on the Internet, lies sometimes get in people’s heads, but we can’t listen to lies,” Schumer said on the chamber floor in the hours before the vote. “We’re a fact-based society. We always have been.”
The Senate debate nonetheless offered a contrast with the news earlier in the day, as the makers of one of the most effective vaccines, Pfizer and BioNTech, found that shots and boosters may be critical to halting the spread of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus. Republicans, however, insisted they were not taking an anti-vaccine stance in trying to roll back Biden’s policies.
“I’m pro-vaccine, but I’m anti-mandate,” Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming said at a news conference Wednesday.
The political spat began earlier this fall when Biden issued a number of directives to promote vaccination nationwide, aiming his executive actions at military service members, federal workers, health professionals and private businesses. While announcing one of the policies in September, the president fretted that “a distinct minority of Americans, supported by a distinct minority of elected officials, are keeping us from turning the corner” on the pandemic.
Democrats largely hailed Biden’s approach, and public health experts and economists predicted the administration’s efforts could produce a meaningful boost in the ranks of the vaccinated. One analysis from Goldman Sachs in September estimated that the policy targeting the private sector would apply to 25 million Americans, prompting just under half to get vaccinated by March, a finding economists derived from studying similar efforts in France.
The firm added that there could be some short-term disruption to employment if Americans leave their jobs, but it said the long-term prospects are positive given the benefits of immunity—and the fact that Biden also allowed for testing as an alternative. The prediction tracked closely with developments in the labor market, in which workers at major airlines and police departments threatened to quit in response to vaccine rules, only to get immunized anyway.
Yet the White House still faced a groundswell of opposition, led by Republicans nationwide, who feared the requirements would result in millions of Americans leaving their jobs. With the backing of major retailers and business lobbyists, a group of GOP state attorneys general sued in November, urging a federal court to halt some of the administration’s vaccine requirements. A judge in New Orleans ultimately sided with them, halting the policy’s implementation in a blow to the Biden administration’s plans.
Other legal challenges and appeals are underway, including a case in Georgia that resulted in a judge on Tuesday blocking implementation of vaccine rules targeting federal contractors. And the opposition has calcified on Capitol Hill, where Republicans have unleashed a flurry of efforts to try to defund or otherwise weaken Biden’s vaccine policies.
In September, Marshall and other GOP lawmakers tried to revoke funding for a federal safety agency tasked with enforcing the rules targeting the private sector. But the effort, launched as part of a fight at the time to fund the government, failed soon afterward.
Those same GOP lawmakers then reprised the idea—and expanded it to cover all of Biden’s vaccine mandates—in the days before that September funding agreement expired last week. The spat, which resulted in another defeat, brought the U.S. government to the brink of a shutdown, a disruption that Democrats blasted as detrimental to the country’s pandemic response.
Republicans then pushed as part of the congressional debate over a roughly $778 billion defense bill to ensure military service members who decline a coronavirus vaccine can receive an honorable or general discharge, permitting them to obtain benefits. And GOP lawmakers on Wednesday invoked the Congressional Review Act to force the Senate to vote on a repeal of the vaccine rules targeting businesses.
Braun, its chief sponsor, said this week he embarked on the effort out of a belief that Americans should not have to choose between getting vaccinated, submitting to testing, or possibly losing their jobs. Other Republicans on Wednesday mounted more politically minded attacks on the Biden administration, with Sen. Ron Johnson, Wis., at one point taking to the chamber floor to make widely debunked claims about the public health response to the pandemic.
“I’ve had every vaccination until this one because I had COVID,” he said. “The COVID gods are not acknowledging natural immunity. They’re not acknowledging vaccine injury. They’re not acknowledging the fact that even if you’re fully vaccinated, you can still get COVID, you can still transmit COVID, so what’s the point of the mandates?”
Public health officials widely agree that the vaccine reduces the risk of serious illness and death, although they acknowledge breakthrough infections are possible because no vaccine is 100% effective. People who are fully vaccinated are about one-tenth as likely to be hospitalized and even less likely to die of COVID-19 compared with those who are unvaccinated, according to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Severe adverse reactions are rare. And studies show that mixed immunity—those immunized even after contracting the disease—might result in greater immune defenses.
Braun’s effort ultimately cleared the Senate because two Democrats, including Manchin, signed on to the resolution. The moderate lawmaker has expressed opposition to vaccine policies targeting private employers, even though he has supported similar rules governing federal workers and members of the military. Tester said this week he would join Manchin because he’s “not crazy about mandates.”
The GOP push drew a sharp rebuke from the White House ahead of the vote. In an official statement of administration policy, top aides to Biden said it “makes no sense for Congress to reverse this much needed protection of our workforce” in the midst of a worsening pandemic. The statement added that Biden’s advisers would recommend a veto.
Yet the proposal faces an uncertain future in the House, where a similar effort by Rep. Fred Keller, R-Pa., has the full backing of his party’s lawmakers. That is not enough to force it to the chamber floor, though Keller said he is “hopeful” other Democrats will eventually join them.
In a sign of the politics animating lawmakers, Braun said he thought Manchin’s backing might provoke support, particularly among “Democrats in swing-state districts” facing reelection in 2022.
In the meantime, Marshall said he continues to rally support for his effort to overturn the vaccine mandate targeting health professionals, citing his belief that such policies more broadly could leave millions of Americans out of jobs. A doctor by training, Marshall said fellow industry workers had “blown up” his phone in opposition—reflecting, he said, a belief among some that the White House has failed to acknowledge “natural immunity” as a potential defense.
Marshall said he could not predict how far or aggressively Republicans plan to push the issue, a critical question since lawmakers must adopt another government funding measure by Feb. 18. For now, though, he said Republicans feel “we need to keep fighting.”
“What I hear from folks back home,” he said, “is that they want to see the Republicans fight and stick together.”