WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans, with the help of Democrats Joe Manchin and Jon Tester, on Wednesday voted to block President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate for large businesses, though the effort is likely to fizzle in the House.
Biden announced this fall that businesses with 100 or more employers would have to require their workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4, or be tested at least weekly. The rule, issued through the federal Occupational Safety and Hazards Administration, is already on hold thanks to the ruling last month of a federal appeals court which called it "staggeringly overbroad."
The measure is roundly opposed by conservatives who say it's illegal and would lead to economic disaster.
"The United States of America is a free country," Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Wednesday before the vote. "The federal government elites in Washington cannot micromanage citizens' personal choices without a legitimate basis in law and the Constitution ... President Biden's absurd private-sector vaccine mandate is blatant overreach."
After failing to include a provision blocking the mandate in a spending bill Congress approved last week, Republicans were able to use a legislative maneuver known as the Congressional Review Act to force a vote Wednesday. It passed 52-48 with moderate Democrats Manchin of West Virginia and Tester of Montana siding with the Republicans.
"Let me be clear. I do not support any government vaccine mandate on private businesses," Manchin said in a statement last week. "I have long said we should incentivize, not penalize, private employers whose responsibility it is to protect their employees from COVID-19."
The effort is unlikely to get any traction in the Democratic-controlled House, so the fate of the mandate will lie in the hands of the courts, which are hearing challenges on the issue.
OSHA estimates the rule would save thousands of lives and prevent more than 250,000 hospitalizations due to workplace exposure to the virus. Aside from requiring employers with at least 100 workers to be vaccinated or regularly tested, the order also requires employers provide paid time to workers to get vaccinated and allow for paid leave to recover from any side effects.
The rule also mandates that:
Employers determine the vaccination status of each employee, obtain acceptable proof of vaccination status from vaccinated employees, and maintain records and a roster of each employee's vaccination status.
Workers provide "prompt notice" when they test positive for COVID-19 or receive a COVID-19 diagnosis. Employers must then remove the employee from the workplace, regardless of vaccination status, until they meet required criteria.
Ensure each worker who is not fully vaccinated is tested for COVID-19 at least weekly (if the worker is in the workplace at least once a week) or within 7 days before returning to work (if the worker is away from the workplace for a week or longer).
Ensure that, in most circumstances, each employee who has not been fully vaccinated wears a mask when indoors or when occupying a vehicle with another person for work purposes.
Republicans, such as McConnell, who oppose the mandate say they want Americans to get the vaccine, they just oppose forcing them to do it. Meanwhile, Biden administration health officials and many Democratic lawmakers warn the best way to stamp out the virus is to inoculate people so that variants cannot take hold and spread the disease.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass, said the mandate would speed a return to pre-pandemic conditions.
"We mandate vaccinations for our children so that they can be healthy and go to school. We mandate vaccinations so our service members are protected in the line of duty," he said on the Senate floor Wednesday before the vote. "Let's protect our workers and our workplaces so they can stay healthy and stay on the job."
Sen. Roger Marshall, the Kansas Republican who helped lead the opposition to the mandate during last week's debate over a spending bill, predicted the mandate would impose dire consequences. Many businesses with vaccine-hesitant workers could not meet the requirement and would be forced to close or cut back significantly.
"Economic shutdown," he said during a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday. "That's what's going to happen if this federal vaccine mandate enforced by OSHA goes forward."
The Congressional Review Act is the official process Congress can use to block or eliminate an executive branch rule. Both chambers must agree to oppose the rule for it to be blocked.
A rule disapproved using this mechanism is not only nullified but also can't be reissued in a “substantially similar” manner in the future, unless Congress authorizes it to do so, according to the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's COVID Vaccine mandate, blocked in Senate, now heads to House