The Senate issued a high-profile rebuke of President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate on large businesses Wednesday night, in a largely symbolic vote to get rid of a key component of the administration's Covid-19 response.
Democrats Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) joined all the Republicans present in the 52-48 vote after critics assailed the mandate as an example of federal overreach and dismissed its option of weekly testing for workers who refuse to get shots as an insufficient accommodation.
Lawmakers employed a mechanism called the Congressional Review Act that offers a fast track for wiping out administrative rules. A companion petition in the House is still short of the 218 signatures needed to force a floor vote, and the White House has already promised to veto any disapproval measure that clears Congress. However, Wednesday's vote highlighted the ongoing challenges the administration faces in its attempts to end the pandemic and the deep divisions on Capitol Hill and around the country on how best to do so.
The vaccine mandate on businesses with more than 100 employees is already being challenged in court, but Republicans said they wanted to use the legislative maneuver rather than let the judicial process play out. Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), the leader of the Senate petition, called the Biden administration’s rule “government in overdrive,” while Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) likened it to “authoritarianism” — even as they and other Republicans stressed that they personally support getting vaccinated.
“Hi, I’m Mike and I’m pro-vaccine,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) joked to reporters at a Wednesday press conference. “But I’m anti-mandate because I’m pro-worker.”
Most Democrats blasted the repeal effort as “ridiculous” and “anti-science,” and warned it would prolong the pandemic and facilitate the emergence of new Covid variants.
“The biggest thing standing between us and the end of the pandemic is Americans who have refused to get vaccinated,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday. “The worst thing we can do is to tie our own hands behind our backs.”
Yet the Republican minority successfully forced the vote with the backing of Manchin and Tester, two centrist Democrats who expressed concern about the mandate’s impact on businesses back in their states.
The parallel House effort has the unanimous backing of the chamber’s Republicans. Rep. Fred Keller (R-Pa.), who is leading the petition, said the GOP caucus is confident it can peel off enough Democratic defections from lawmakers in swing districts and is aiming for a vote in January, though an aide for the New Democrat Coalition of House moderates said they know of no members who are considering backing the bill.
“This is a measure that has us standing with the American people,” Keller told POLITICO in a phone interview. “They’ve done the right thing during the pandemic and we trust they can continue to do that without a mandate.”
The Biden administration pointed to the recent success of mandates in the military, federal agencies and some large corporations in pushing vaccination rates well over 90 percent, and cited the backing of the Business Roundtable and several major labor unions. Earlier this week, the White House poured cold water on the GOP gambit.
“If it comes to the president’s desk, he will veto it,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday. She added of the rule in question: “It’s based on a 50-year-old law, and we are confident in our ability to implement it.”
No matter what comes of the effort, Republicans made it clear they will keep fighting the administration's Covid measures, despite mounting virus cases and predictions of a difficult winter.
Critics of the private sector mandate in particular argue it will hurt companies already struggling with worker shortages, mass resignations and other pandemic stressors.
“We've been hearing a lot from our businesses,” Tester said in an interview ahead of the vote. "I still think the [mandates for] the military, hospitals, government contractors — that's different."
Braun’s office said the senator has received more calls from constituents about this issue than any other from his two years in office.
Pointing to recent court rulings blocking other vaccine mandates imposed by the Biden administration, opponents of the rule also argue it’s unconstitutional.
“I agree with the 5th Circuit Court — the federal government doesn’t have the authority,” Keller said.