Why Republicans’ doomed bid to stop vaccine mandate still matters

Why Republicans’ doomed bid to stop vaccine mandate still matters
The GOP’s embrace of the anti-vaccine movement shows the lengths to which the party is willing to make common cause with extremists in service of damaging the Biden administration

A Republican-backed resolution to nullify the Biden administration’s employer vaccine mandate has next to zero chance of ever becoming law, but represents an ominous warning sign for the future of American politics nonetheless.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Montana Senator Jon Tester joined their 50 Republican colleagues in voting to approve joint resolution, which makes use of the Congressional Review Act — a Clinton-era law which lets Congress repeal new federal regulations  — to roll back the Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule, which is a centrepiece of Mr Biden’s efforts to bring the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic under control.

The proposed Osha rule — which is the subject of multiple legal challenges by Republican-led states and is currently enjoined by a judicial order while courts hear arguments over its legality — would require employers with more than 100 workers on their payrolls to either ensure that their employees are vaccinated against Covid-19 or submit to weekly testing.

Republican senators have described their efforts as an attempt to rein in what they believe to be an excessive overreach by the Biden administration which intrudes into the public health authorities traditionally left to the states under America’s federal system.

At a Wednesday Senate GOP press conference to promote the anti-vaccine effort, senator after senator declared that they were only “anti-mandate,” not against vaccines.

Wyoming senator John Barrasso, an orthopaedic surgeon in his pre-political days, said Mr Biden was “guilty of medical malpractice” and invoked his own medical background in declaring the Osha mandate “a massive overreach by the government and a massive mistake”.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida took pains to “emphasize how important the vaccine is, and especially booster shots” in light of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which scientists believe spreads far more easily than other variants.

Mr Rubio said Mr Biden’s mandate “is going to backfire” because “people that thus far have not gotten the vaccine are not going to do it until this White House acknowledges natural immunity,” which is the idea that those who’ve recovered from Covid-19 are as immune to the virus or more so than those who’ve been vaccinated. Most reputable scientists say the immunity conferred by a Covid-19 infection is not as durable or strong as that which can be achieved through vaccination.

Yet despite their success in getting their resolution through the Senate, it has no reasonable chance of ever becoming law. Not only would it need to gain the approval of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, but Mr Biden would need to agree to nullify his administration’s own regulation by signing it into law.

A statement of administration policy released on Tuesday by the Office of Management and Budget makes clear that Mr Biden’s advisers “would strongly recommend that he veto the resolution” if it were to pass both chambers.

But the fact that top Republicans in Congress have coalesced around trying to hinder the Biden administration’s vaccine efforts — even if their effort is doomed — could be an ominous sign for the future of America’s fight against the pandemic.

Resistance to mandatory vaccinations was once a fringe movement confined to the extremes of the political left. Until recently, the highest rates of vaccine refusal were in some of the country’s wealthiest, most liberal communities.

Yet Republican strategists and experts on political extremism say the Trump-era GOP has seized on vaccine resistance as a way for Republicans to bring together extremists from the left and right, the latter of whom are using their refusal to accept the Covid-19 vaccines as a way to signal their opposition to Mr Biden and his administration, while Republican elected officials are taking advantage of the anti-vaccine movement as a way to hurt Mr Biden’s progress against the coronavirus and thereby damage his administration.

One Democratic senator, Chris Coons of Delaware, told The Independent that he believed the motivations of GOP senators such as Indiana’s Mike Braun — the measure’s lead sponsor — were sincere. But he suggested that much of the resistance to the Covid vaccines has come out of opposition to Mr Biden.

“I know Senator Braun, I think he earnestly believes that this is in the best interest of the American people. But there is widespread resistance to vaccines that I think is in part political,” he said. 

One veteran Republican operative, Mike Madrid, said Republican senators’ protestations that they’re only “anti-mandate” is a “difference without a distinction and a complete political cop out”.

“What they’re trying to do is have it both ways — these are educated smart people that know that vaccines work,” he said. “But they’re trying to hold on to this freedom argument by saying it’s your choice. But it’s just ‘Let’s Go Brandon,’” he said, referring to a popular phrase among conservatives that is meant to stand in for “f*** Joe Biden”.

“If they really believed that they would they look as hypocritical on a number of different issues, everything from marijuana legalisation to abortion. So it’s all about sticking it to Biden … that’s all it is,” he said.

Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Centre who studies political extremism, said Senate Republicans’ embrace of anti-vaccine rhetoric is part of an attempt to create a “big tent” of extremists in support of the party from left and right.

“If you’re a far right extremist or even a far right propagandist or provocateur, it makes sense to go big,” he said.

He added that conservative resistance to vaccines has become “part of showing your tribal affiliation”.

“It’s become an inherently political act to refuse the vaccine — you even have people that are getting the vaccine, and then lying about it, because they don’t want to be ostracised,” he said. “They’re twisting it and manipulating it in every possible way to score political points.”

Mr Clarke warned that the continued growth of the anti-vaccine movement could turn it as violent as it has been in Europe, where vaccine clinics in multiple countries have come under attack.

“We’re seeing the anti-vax movement gaining steam and melding with the far right — it’s really just kind of a combustible situation,” he explained.

“If and when things start trending back toward normal and you start seeing large gatherings, of people in concerts and public spaces on a more regular basis … that’s a range of soft targets that are out there. And if someone’s like a committed anti-vaxxer that wants to engage in violence, they might target a place that vaccine only where you need ‘vax pass’ to get in,” he said. “There’s a lot of different permutations of terrorism and they don’t always have to make sense to people … it’s what drives people to commit political or ideologically motivated violence, and we live in a country where everyone can get a gun.”