Maria Briscoe, a volunteer with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps, vaccinates Bristol resident Aaliyah Belcher at a library vaccine clinic. Many Southwest Virginia localities, including Bristol, have vaccination rates far lower than the rest of the state. (Kate Masters/Virginia Mercury)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate passed a resolution Wednesday night to block President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate on private employers, with every Republican and two Democrats casting votes aimed at preventing that pending requirement.
Democratic Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia joined with the GOP in backing the resolution, which passed 52-48.
Tester, a centrist Democrat representing a conservative state, cited concerns from business owners and other constituents in deciding to oppose the vaccine mandate set to kick in Jan. 4.
“Over the past few months, I’ve repeatedly heard concerns from Montana’s small business and community leaders about the negative effect the private business vaccine mandate will have on their bottom lines and our state’s economy,” he said in a statement ahead of the vote.
Tester said that with his vote, he was “defending Montana jobs and small businesses against these burdensome regulations.”
The Senate rebuke was the latest blow for the president’s proposed vaccine requirements, which have faced a slew of legal challenges.
Related mandates requiring vaccines for health care workers and federal contractors have been temporarily blocked as lawsuits weave through the court system.
The next step for the congressional effort to halt the requirement on private employers would be a vote in the Democratic-controlled U.S. House, where all 212 Republican legislators have cosponsored a related resolution sponsored by Pennsylvania Rep. Fred Keller.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has said Biden will veto the resolution if it reaches his desk.
GOP decries mandate as federal overreach
Under the vaccination requirement outlined by Biden earlier this fall, private employers with at least 100 employees must either ensure their workers are vaccinated against COVID-19, or that they undergo weekly testing.
The requirement is projected to affect some 84 million American workers, and non-compliant businesses would face fines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Congressional Republicans are challenging the vaccine requirement under the Congressional Review Act, which can be used by federal legislators to overturn certain federal agency regulations. The vote under that act cannot be filibustered, so only a simple majority is needed.
GOP opponents of the requirement have decried it as an overreach of federal authority, and one that will have significant effects on the U.S. workforce at a time when businesses are having difficulties finding enough workers.
“This is not about being anti-vaccine,” said Sen. Steve Daines, (R-Mont.), during a news conference Wednesday, noting that he was part of the Pfizer vaccine trial. “I’m pro-science, pro-vaccine. But I’m anti-mandates.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who survived polio as a child, made a similar argument on the Senate floor Wednesday, noting his own support for vaccines as he highlighted the judicial rulings that already have blocked aspects of the vaccination requirement.
“The United States of America is a free country. The federal government, elites in Washington, cannot micromanage citizens’ personal choices without a legitimate basis in the law and the Constitution,” McConnell said. “And that goes double for presidents going far beyond the bounds of their office and their authority.”
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, (D-N.Y.), expressed frustration with the argument from Republicans that while they may have chosen to get vaccinated, others shouldn’t be required to do so.
“If the only damage was to the person — him or herself who didn’t get vaccinated — maybe some people would say that’s okay,” Schumer said. “But it’s not just to them: When there’s a large pool of people unvaccinated, even if it’s not the majority, that allows the COVID virus to spread, to mutate, to create new variants, and create stronger new variants.
“The biggest thing standing between us and the end of the pandemic is Americans who have refused to get vaccinated,” Schumer added.
Americans divided over mandate
A Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday found Americans sharply divided over the vaccine requirement on private sector employers, 50% in support compared to 47% opposed.
A slightly larger share of voters supported state and local vaccine mandates for public safety workers, such as police officers, firefighters and first responders, with 55% in favor and 44% opposed.
The Biden administration released a statement Tuesday evening saying the president “strongly opposes” the Senate resolution to undo his vaccine requirement.
“At a time when COVID is on the rise, a new variant is on the loose, and more Americans are choosing to be vaccinated, it makes no sense for Congress to reverse this much-needed protection of our workforce,” according to the administration policy statement.
“It puts our recovery in danger, and a vote for this resolution risks a return to shutdowns, layoffs, and closures that result from allowing COVID to spread more easily in the workplace.”
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