WASHINGTON – The Senate voted Wednesday to reverse the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine-or-test mandate under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a GOP-led effort against public health measures designed to bring an end to a pandemic that has cost nearly 800,000 lives in the U.S.
But the 52-48 vote amounts to little more than a symbolic rebuke of the policy, which is tied up in the courts anyway. In order to succeed, the resolution would also need to be approved by the Democratic-controlled House and signed by President Joe Biden himself, neither of which is likely.
The Biden administration said Tuesday that if the bill reached the president’s desk, Biden’s advisers would “strongly recommend that he veto” it: “It makes no sense for Congress to reverse this much-needed protection of our workforce.”
Last week, a group of conservatives in the Senate almost shut down the government in protest of the rule, reflecting the level of animus in the Republican Party toward continued COVID-19 restrictions. The lawmakers ultimately relented after winning zero concessions from Democrats, allowing the government to be funded until February.
“We lost the battle, but we’re gonna win the war,” Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), a doctor and one of the main senators behind the effort, told HuffPost. “I think it was a huge victory, though, in the sense that all the Republicans stuck together, that we all voted together.”
Marshall then said he would like to “pause” to urge people to get vaccinated for COVID-19, even though he had called it “immoral” for the government to ask employers to require workers to get vaccinated or take weekly tests for COVID-19.
“You don’t want this omicron variant, you don’t want the delta variant, either. So please go get your boosters,” Marshall said.
Pleading with the public to get vaccinated to protect themselves and their loved ones from the virus hasn’t worked as quickly as experts had hoped, however. Only about 60% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, lagging behind many countries around the world despite the early and widespread availability of vaccines in the U.S.
Moreover, there is a growing gap in COVID-19 vaccination rates between Democrats and Republicans. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey that was conducted in September, far more people in counties that voted for Joe Biden were fully vaccinated compared to counties that voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
The emergency OSHA rule requires employers with at least 100 workers to implement programs in which those workers either show proof of vaccination or undergo weekly testing for COVID-19 and wear a mask. Employers that fail to do so could be hit with fines, though OSHA officials said they expect the vast majority of firms to comply.
The rule itself does not force anyone to get vaccinated to keep their job, but it gives employers the option to mandate vaccination if they choose, as many have already done. The portions of the rule relating to vaccination and testing were slated to go into effect on Jan. 4, but that timeline is almost certain to be pushed back due to legal challenges.
The rule has already run into roadblocks in federal court. Republican state officials have sued to stop it from going into effect, arguing that OSHA doesn’t have the authority to implement it. Last month, a three-judge panel issued a temporary stay against the rule until the case can be heard in the conservative-leaning U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, where 20 of the 26 judges were appointed by Republican presidents. The rule stands a good chance of ending up before the Supreme Court.
But the opposition is not entirely from Republicans. Several Democrats also bucked party lines in voting to disapprove of the Biden vaccine rule on Wednesday, including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
Tester told HuffPost that unlike the Biden administration vaccine requirement for federal contractors, health workers and the military, the OSHA rule put a burden on businesses in his state. Manchin agreed, saying in a statement that Congress should “incentivize, not penalize” private employers to get their employees vaccinated.
Other Democrats argued that public health should take priority over the concerns of employers, especially when it comes to a highly transmissible virus that has already cost so many lives.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), for example, slammed the effort to overturn the Biden vaccine requirements as “anti-science” and “anti-vaccine.” He noted that a large pool of unvaccinated people would continue to pose a threat to society, including those who did get vaccinated, because of the possibility of vaccine-resistant variants developing in the future.
“We never had this outcry when we had to give our kids – my kids – mumps [and] measles vaccines before they went to school,” Schumer said in a floor speech. “We never had this outcry as people lined up to get flu shots. And all of a sudden, something has happened here. It’s wrong and it’s bad for the country, and it’s not based on any scientific evidence whatsoever.”