Why GOP is stepping up fight against vaccine mandates

Ross D. Franklin/AP
Anti-vaccine mandate activists rally outside Phoenix City Council chambers as the city paused implementation of a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for 14,000 city workers, Dec. 7, 2021.
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Does the pandemic warrant vaccine mandates for private businesses, federal employees, and health care workers? Most Democrats, along with public health officials, tout widespread vaccination as the best tool to promote public well-being and end the health crisis.

“This is not about freedom or personal choice. It’s about protecting yourself and those around you,” said President Joe Biden on Sept. 9, when he announced the mandate for private businesses with over 100 employees, which has since been held up in court.

Why We Wrote This

What is the balance between public health and individual liberty? Republicans say the federal government has overreached by requiring more than 100 million Americans to get the shot.

Today, all 50 GOP senators were expected to vote to invalidate that mandate, which they see as counterproductive and damaging to the economy. They argue the administration has not struck the right balance between the good of the community and individual liberty, nor adequately addressed studies raising questions about the push for universal vaccination, especially for those with natural immunity. 

For GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who has introduced a dozen bills targeting the mandates, the president’s actions violate a key founding principle: that the people are sovereign.

“The use of overwhelming government power without even considering the implications on freedom is precisely why our founders thought the Declaration of Independence, a revolution, and our Constitution were necessary,” he said on the Senate floor.

On more than half of the days the Senate has been in session since late September, GOP Sen. Mike Lee has taken to the Senate floor to rail against one thing: President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates.

Senator Lee isn’t opposed to vaccination; he himself has gotten the COVID-19 vaccine, and he has encouraged others to as well. But the Utah conservative – a former Supreme Court law clerk – sees the mandates as an unjustified infringement of freedom. He argues that the federal government has chosen coercion over transparency, undermining public trust. 

“When openly and transparently informed, I believe that each and every American is able to handle the responsibility of weighing the risks of getting vaccinated or not getting vaccinated,” he said in his opening speech on Sept. 28, introducing his first of a dozen bills targeting the mandates. 

Why We Wrote This

What is the balance between public health and individual liberty? Republicans say the federal government has overreached by requiring more than 100 million Americans to get the shot.

Since then, he and fellow Republicans have stepped up the pressure, driven in part by hundreds of constituents calling in to their offices or confronting them back home. 

“I believe each time the federal government mandates that we do something, we lose a little bit of our freedoms and our liberties,” says Scott Graves, a power lineman in Kansas who was one of 250 union members that crowded into a standing-room-only town hall with Sen. Roger Marshall after being told that, as a federal subcontractor, he would have to get vaccinated. “We pretty much took a stand and said if you want to spend Christmas in the dark, then keep pushing that. We told Senator Marshall to take that back to Washington.”

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Mike Lee of Utah leaves a GOP lunch meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 2, 2021. Senator Lee has introduced a dozen bills seeking to overturn the Biden administration's vaccine mandates, which he sees as an infringement on individual liberty.

Last week, Senator Lee and Senator Marshall were among a handful of GOP lawmakers who threatened to shut down the government, eventually backing down in return for a vote on an amendment to defund the mandates. That effort failed along party lines, 48-50. But the issue is not going away.

On Dec. 8, Senate Republicans forced a vote on a resolution filed by Indiana Sen. Mike Braun – and co-sponsored by all 49 of his GOP colleagues, as well as Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia – to nullify President Biden’s mandate for private employers. The resolution passed 52-48, with Democrat Jon Tester also supporting it. Even if Republicans get several Democrats to help pass the House, it is unlikely to be able to overcome a presidential veto. But GOP senators say the point is to get every member of Congress on record as to whether they support the OSHA mandate.

The GOP push stems from a feeling that Democrats have not struck the right balance between the good of the greater community and individual liberties. They warn that the mandates will prove counterproductive, leading to worker shortages in critical industries and further diminishing public trust. 

Most Democrats, along with public health officials, see widespread vaccination as the best tool to promote the well-being of the country and end the pandemic. “This is not about freedom or personal choice. It’s about protecting yourself and those around you – the people you work with, the people you care about, the people you love,” said President Biden when he announced the mandate for private businesses on Sept. 9.

To Senator Lee, that view misinterprets the relationship between government and the people as outlined in the Constitution. 

“The use of overwhelming government power without even considering the implications on freedom is precisely why our founders thought the Declaration of Independence, a revolution, and our Constitution were necessary,” said Senator Lee in his opening speech.

Held up in court, for now

There appears to be growing international momentum for universal vaccine mandates, with several countries having already implemented them, and more European leaders recently saying they would support such a move – though the World Health Organization’s top official in the region said this week they should be “an absolute last resort.” 

Susan Walsh/AP/File
President Joe Biden talks about the newly approved COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-11 from the South Court Auditorium at the White House complex in Washington, Nov. 3, 2021. This week, a federal judge has blocked the administration from enforcing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees of federal contractors, the latest in a string of victories for Republican-led states pushing back against Mr. Biden’s pandemic policies.

The Biden administration has issued three mandates, all with a January deadline, which apply to more than 100 million Americans: 84 million workers at companies with 100 or more employees, 17 million health care providers under the umbrella of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), and 3.5 million federal employees as well as an unspecified number of federal contractors, and subcontractors with contracts worth more than $250,000. Private employees would have the option of weekly testing, but federal workers would not. Private employers would face fines of nearly $14,000 per employee and $136,532 for “willful violations.” 

Courts have temporarily blocked both the private employer mandate, implemented by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under an emergency temporary standard, and the CMS mandate. Yesterday, a judge also blocked the mandate for federal contract workers. 

Still, the White House insists it expects the mandates to be upheld, and last month released a fact sheet arguing that such requirements have already “increased vaccination rates by more than 20 percentage points – to over 90% – across a wide range of businesses and organizations.”

Supporters say many employers were relieved to have the government step in so they didn’t have to impose vaccine mandates themselves. But critics argue the president is turning private businesses into a “medical police force.”

“Employers are furious about this. They feel like Biden is pitting them against their employees,” said GOP Sen. Joni Ernst late last week.

Separately, more than two dozen U.S. cities have issued mandates for their employees, some with the option of weekly testing instead of vaccination, and New York City just announced a new mandate for private employers.

A significant number of employees affected by the mandates have applied for religious or medical exemptions, and a Kaiser Family Foundation survey published in late October found that an estimated 5% had quit their jobs rather than comply. Up to 9% said they planned to quit if not given the option of weekly testing. 

In a letter released last week, more than a dozen Republican senators warned that the vaccine mandates would “destroy the machinery that allows our nation to function.”

The trucking industry – already facing a shortage of 80,000 truck drivers – could lose more than a third of its workforce, according to the American Trucking Associations, which is involved with one of the court challenges. Some 2,300 New York City firefighters called in sick the first day the city’s mandate went into effect. And nursing staff shortages due to opposition to the mandates shut down a Maine neonatal ICU and a New York hospital’s emergency department.

The U.S. military, whose branches issued their own mandates with deadlines in November and December, has reported high rates of compliance for vaccination among active-duty troops, but significantly lower rates for National Guard troops and reservists, particularly in the Marine Corps.

While most Republicans agree with Senator Lee, at least in principle, that mandating the COVID-19 vaccine infringes on individual rights, some say they might weigh the balance between public health and personal autonomy differently if the threat appeared more urgent.

“I can certainly envision a circumstance where I would support vaccine mandates [but] it would have to be a far deadlier disease,” says Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin in a phone interview. “If we were talking about Ebola, which has a 40% fatality rate, and we had a safe vaccine for that, we’d probably need to force that one on the public.”

Senator Johnson says he knows his stances have made him a political target. His YouTube channel has been suspended multiple times for violating COVID-19 misinformation policies, including after a roundtable he held last month questioning the safety of vaccines, in which he highlighted witness testimony and deaths registered in a national self-reporting database. (Health care providers are required to report deaths following COVID-19 vaccination, regardless of whether there is any causal link.)

“I’m not doing this based on politics at all,” he says. “I’d say the politics … are probably not in my favor because the media and the social media – the COVID gods – have their narrative, and boy, you’d better not push back.”

Indeed, some in his own party seem wary of putting the issue front and center. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell notably did not support the threat to shut down the government last week over the issue. The GOP currently appears well positioned to take back the House and possibly the Senate in 2022, with President Biden buffeted by inflation, supply chain issues, and more. Some Republicans are leery of risking a backlash with a controversial fight over vaccine mandates, which a September poll showed a majority of Americans support.

Science in an age of polarization

The political fight is unfolding against a backdrop of new uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and how best to address it. The recent discovery of the omicron variant has fueled frustration on the left, many of whom blame low vaccination rates for the emergence of new variants and the pandemic dragging into a third year. 

“We should be doing everything we can to stop this virus, we should be using every tool to keep America safe,” said Sen. Patty Murray, the Democratic chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, speaking on the Senate floor against Senator Marshall’s amendment. “I do not understand why – after all families have been through, after all we have lost and all the hard work we have done to rebuild – would anyone want to throw that in jeopardy and throw away one of the strongest tools we have: to get people vaccinated.” 

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have accused Republican lawmakers opposed to the mandates as being “anti-science.” But GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina says that’s missing the point. 

“The executive branch doesn’t have this power,” says Senator Graham, noting that he is vaccinated himself and has encouraged others to get vaccinated as well. “They’re legitimizing an unconstitutional act by suggesting it’s about science. It’s not about science; it’s about the law.”

One factor driving many people to protest, however, is frustration that public health officials have not adequately addressed studies raising questions about the push for universal vaccination, especially for those with natural immunity. Part of the challenge is that there’s still a lot that virologists and epidemiologists are trying to determine about the virus, how it spreads, and how effective vaccines are over time and in the face of new variants. One Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compilation of research on vaccine efficacy, for example, reveals double-digit variance between studies. In response to data showing reduced antibodies after six months, the CDC is now recommending that all adults get booster shots. 

Officials say the data is changing over time, but critics fault them for not being more transparent about what they don’t know. 

“Nobody really trusts the medical people in charge,” says Mr. Graves in Kansas, who says the inconsistent messaging has undermined his confidence. 

A nurse who was working at the front lines of the pandemic says he can see both sides. As someone who has dedicated his life to medicine, he understands the urgent desire to get a public health crisis under control. But he says it opens up “a whole can of ethical worms” to mandate vaccines that have been rapidly upscaled and lack long-term safety data in humans. Several days after getting vaccinated last year, he says he began experiencing severe symptoms, which he blames on the vaccine. The CDC maintains that the vaccines are safe and effective, and says reports of adverse events are rare and most do not prove causation. 

Lost in the debate over whether to mandate vaccinations, the nurse adds, is the nuance needed to navigate the complex and sometimes contradictory information involved. 

“Science has been hijacked by politics, unfortunately – on both sides,” says the nurse, who did not want to be identified out of fear of losing his job. “No one is winning in this, because we have too polarized a government and all they do is increasingly polarize the population.”

This story has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate’s Dec. 8 resolution on the vaccine mandate for private employers. 

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