Top Kansas lawmakers approved a special committee on Monday to investigate how to fight President Joe Biden’s proposed COVID-19 vaccine rules — a less-expensive alternative to a long-shot effort by conservatives to call a special legislative session.
Republican leaders said the special committee shares the same goal of a $65,000-a-day special session: developing a plan to push back against the federal vaccination effort. Biden earlier this month announced upcoming regulations that will require most health care workers to get vaccinated and require most large employers to either ensure their workers are vaccinated or regularly tested.
Many Republicans have been seething over the effort and are calling for an immediate and aggressive response. The vote by the Legislative Coordinating Council, composed of GOP and Democratic leaders, to establish a special committee marked the Legislature’s first substantive action.
But it fell well short of the special session that some conservatives want. Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican and a leading special session proponent, said in a statement on Monday that he supports the special committee while making clear he and others will continue working to recall legislators to Topeka.
“God willing, there will be enough members of the Senate and House that realize we have reached a pivotal moment in our country’s history where the fate of our constitution is at stake, and we can no longer wait to take action,” Thompson said.
A special session is highly unlikely. Because Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly will almost certainly not call for one, supporters must obtain signatures from two-thirds of legislators. Republicans technically have enough members to make that happen, but those who want a special session are all but assured of failing without leadership’s support.
Still, creation of the special committee underscores the potency of the vaccine issue among Republicans, with GOP leaders compelled to demonstrate they were taking some kind of immediate action before the Legislature returns for its regular session in January. In the eyes of many conservatives, the upcoming federal vaccine rules amount to government coercion of individuals and businesses.
“I want to make sure it’s clear, this meeting is obviously not in response to anything some of our individual members have done or are doing, right? But I understand we have some new members that are energetic,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican.
Masterson said even if there was a special session, there would be committee hearings. The special committee is meant to “start action.”
“Otherwise, we’re costing taxpayers $65,000 a day to be in session for a committee to meet and everybody sitting around waiting for the same result,” Masterson said.
Some health care providers, especially nursing homes, have also warned that some workers will quit if forced to choose between vaccination and keeping their jobs. Many facilities report they already have difficulty recruiting and retaining staff and warn a mandate would compound the problem.
“We need to check the federal government pretty hard and stop them,” Senate Vice President Rick Wilborn, a McPherson Republican, said. “It’s just completely out of control. They’re loose.”
What, exactly, that check could be is unclear. In Missouri, where more momentum exists for calling a special session, some legislators have floated prohibiting enforcement of federal vaccine rules.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who is running for governor, and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who is running for U.S. Senate, have both signaled they will challenge the rules in court if they are implemented. In theory, a state law that defies the federal directives could trigger a legal confrontation more quickly.
Biden and his allies call the requirements necessary to reducing deaths and alleviating pressure on strained hospitals. Unvaccinated individuals also threaten the nation’s economic recovery, they warn.
“Their refusal has cost all of us. The refusal to get vaccinated has cost all of us,” Biden said last week. “And I’m moving forward with vaccination requirements wherever I can.”
A little over half of Kansas residents are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationally, 55.3% of people are fully vaccinated.
Top Kansas Democratic lawmakers on Monday voiced concern about further politicizing vaccines and asked that the special committee also look at efforts to encourage vaccination. Still, no one on the LCC voted against creating the committee.
“We’ve had 6,000 deaths in Kansas because of COVID and I just don’t want this committee to politicize this any more. We need to have solutions,” said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat. “How do we get out of this and stop having a political debate on this? But how do we actually protect Kansas, keep our economy growing? That’s what we need.”