Partisan fight over vaccine mandates moves to House

WASHINGTON (thehill): Federal workers are being asked to either show proof of vaccination or face regular testing requirements — but don’t expect the legislative branch to follow suit anytime soon.

More than a dozen House Democrats, frustrated by the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19, are urging the Capitol physician to similarly require proof of vaccination or at least twice-weekly testing in the halls of Congress.

Such a mandate would likely face fierce backlash from Republicans, many of whom continue to wage a war on rules requiring masks to be worn in the House.

Capitol Hill could become a place where COVID-19 could spread, the Democrats argue, without new rules or restrictions.

And the battle over the rules is exacerbating an already-toxic workplace environment where Democrats and Republicans are consistently at one another’s throats.

Democrats worried they could expose themselves to the virus through their work — and then transfer it to vulnerable family members — are angry with Republicans who refuse to be vaccinated or wear masks.

The boiling anger and distrust has led to lawmakers getting into shouting matches over masks, refusing to board elevators with each other and outright avoiding some colleagues on the House floor.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who led a letter signed by 19 Democrats to the Capitol physician, Brian Monahan, said that he was moved to start the effort after observing the utter breakdown in civility. He further cited the risk to his grandchildren, who are too young to be vaccinated, if he were to catch the virus while in the Capitol.

“We’re going to have something uglier happening if we don’t begin to consider each other’s health as we conduct the business of the nation,” Cleaver told The Hill. “I don’t think that it’s asking too much that members who choose not to take the vaccine are tested, and that we know that everybody on the floor is COVID-free.”

Cleaver stressed that he “will stand up for the people’s right not to get the vaccine” if they are vehemently opposed to it.

“But it seems to me that I have a right not to be infected by my colleagues just because we work in the same place,” Cleaver said. “I owe it to my family not to bring something home that can kill. This could be a matter of life and death.”

As of Friday, Cleaver had yet to hear back from Monahan. The Capitol physician’s office didn’t return a request for comment from The Hill.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested on Friday that it could be easier to establish some sort of mandate like the one some Democrats are calling for once the COVID-19 vaccines are fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

“Now, in a matter of maybe days or weeks, the full approval will be given to the vaccines and that, I think, will make a difference in terms of what we can do,” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol.

After nearly six months without any reported COVID-19 cases among members of Congress, at least five lawmakers have tested positive in the last three weeks. That number included four who said they were fully vaccinated, highlighting the threat of relatively rare but still possible breakthrough cases.

Aside from the Biden administration requiring vaccines or regular testing among federal workers, a growing number of businesses and local governments are starting to require vaccines among their employees. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio went a step further by mandating that people show proof of vaccination to access indoor activities like restaurant dining, gyms and theaters in the city starting next month.

The White House has also begun requiring all visitors, as well as journalists, to show proof of vaccination or submit to COVID-19 testing.

Yet Congress, particularly the House, has consistently struggled to reach universal consensus on how to keep its own workplace safe since the pandemic began a year and a half ago.

Several GOP lawmakers have refused to comply with the reinstated House mask mandate, despite the risk of $500 fines. At least seven Republicans have been issued fines by the House sergeant-at-arms since May after protesting rules that they believe are excessive.

And on the House’s last day of session before members left for the August recess, at least three Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), led groups of what appeared to be staff and visitors around the House chamber — all without masks.

Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, said that individual lawmaker offices should continue to have discretion over their own employment policies, rather than being subject to a broad mandate from above.

“We respect that this is a member driven institution with long-standing precedent for employment policies being set by each office. Mandates only give more control and power to the Speaker,” Davis said in a statement to The Hill. 

Several Republicans have introduced legislation to ban vaccine mandates nationally, including for schools, the military and businesses.

Several Republicans have introduced legislation to ban mask mandates nationally, including for schools, the military and businesses.

That included one Republican, Rep. Clay Higgins (La.), who tested positive for COVID-19 in late July. He said that he had gotten the virus in January 2020 — before testing was widely available — and did not indicate whether he had been vaccinated.

“We, the People, will not be herded like sheep into medical procedures against our will,” Higgins said when introducing a bill to ban employers from mandating vaccines a few days after announcing he had contracted COVID-19.

But Cleaver maintained that any requirements for vaccination or testing fundamentally come down to mere survival.

“I don’t think this is mean-spirited, I don’t think this is particularly partisan. I think this is self-preservation,” Cleaver said.