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GOP attacks Biden over pandemic response while fighting key tools to curb the virus

<i>JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Republicans are cranking up their crusade against federal vaccine mandates
AFP via Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Republicans are cranking up their crusade against federal vaccine mandates

By Melanie Zanona and Manu Raju, CNN

Republicans are cranking up their crusade against federal vaccine mandates, making their resistance to the Biden administration’s pandemic response efforts a prominent rallying cry in the GOP — even as they simultaneously criticize the President for failing to get the virus under control.

From the outset, the GOP has been fighting vaccine mandates at the federal, state and local level, through both legislation and court challenges. But most recently, they’re digging in their heels over a deal to keep the government’s lights on, with conservatives in the Senate threatening to delay quick passage of a short-term funding bill — and thus forcing a temporary shut down over the weekend — unless it prohibits money for Biden’s federal vaccine mandate.

“I think the folks back home want to know how hard we’re fighting for them, that the jobs back home are as important as keeping the federal government open,” said Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas, one of the Republicans in favor of the shutdown strategy. “That’s the hypocrisy up here. … The federal government needs to feel the pressure of what a vaccine mandate really does.”

Forcing a showdown over vaccine mandates would only delay, not derail, final passage of a funding bill. It also wouldn’t ultimately succeed in barring money for the key Biden health initiative. That’s why some Senate Republicans have voiced skepticism about the wisdom of that strategy, especially since several of the government mandates have already been halted amid court challenges.

Still, some Republicans are pushing their leadership to take a stand. Members of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus huddled with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday afternoon to strategize over ways they could force a debate over the issue, according to sources in the meeting. Aside from the funding bill, also known as a continuing resolution, they’ve also been pressing their Senate GOP colleagues to use an annual defense policy bill to fight back against vaccine mandates.

“I think we should be throwing our bodies in front of the train of the continuing resolution while vaccine mandates are in place,” Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas conservative, told CNN.

Republicans and Democrats alike recognize that the success of Biden’s presidency likely hinges on his ability to return the country to normal. Biden ran on being the adult in the room who would take the virus seriously, unlike his predecessor. But since the deadly Delta variant emerged this summer, cases ticked up again, economic worries have persisted and Biden’s approval ratings have slumped.

Yet vaccine skepticism and disinformation about Covid-19 continues to run rampant in the GOP, which has undermined Biden’s ability to contain the virus. Rep. Ronny Jackson, a Texas Republican and Donald Trump’s former doctor, falsely tweeted on Saturday that the new Omicron variant was invented to help Democrats make the case for more mail-in ballots next year.

Despite that, Republicans have been eager to place the blame squarely on Biden’s shoulders.

“Some people say we’re in worse shape today than we were when he came into office, and he ran in part on saying he was gonna get Covid under control,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana told CNN. “And right now, it’s in a worse place.”

McCarthy echoed a similar sentiment during a recent floor speech, saying “more Americans have died this year than last year under Covid,” while the Republican National Committee tweeted that Biden “failed” to “shut down the coronavirus.”

When pressed on what Biden should be doing differently, Scalise responded: “He ought to be working on therapeutics and encouraging more opportunities for people to get treated in different ways, and do some more research on the origins of Covid.”

For Republicans, they view their battle against pandemic protocols as a no-brainer. It’s an issue that revs up their base, which largely sees the mandates as an infringement upon their civil liberties. And they have also started to argue that the vaccine mandates are actually exacerbating the nation’s economic woes, which include the supply chain crisis and labor shortage, because it’s driving people away from the workforce.

But the vaccine mandates have, in fact, proven to be successful in increasing immunization rates, which is one the most effective and life-saving tools to fight the virus. And Democrats counter that the nation is far better off than if Trump were in charge, who consistently flouted health protocols, downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and even reportedly tested positive for coronavirus three days before showing up to his first presidential debate with Biden.

“We are in a position now to be able to decisively deal with the implications of the Omicron variant because of the steps that have been taken by President Biden and his administration, who has led a serious effort to crush the virus, not suggesting that the American people intake Lysol or dismissing the virus as something that was going to disappear in a few days,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries told reporters. “That’s where we were a little over a year ago. … It was dangerous what was coming out of the former White House.”

The GOP pushback to pandemic protocols will also take center stage Thursday afternoon, when a federal court will hear oral arguments in a lawsuit challenging the mask fines that were instituted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. A trio of House Republicans who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit — Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Ralph Norman of South Carolina and Thomas Massie of Kentucky — are all planning to attend.

Greene in particular has racked up tens of thousands of dollars in mask fines, and several Republicans who have protested the chamber’s mask rules have proudly fundraised off their refusal to comply with the health protocols inside the Capitol.

And it’s not just a fight playing out in Congress; it’s also a battle raging at the state level. Several GOP-led states have offered various financial incentives — from bonuses to extra unemployment benefits — for employees who refuse to get the shot and lose their jobs as a result.

Some Democrats called the GOP’s campaign to throw out the vaccine mandates straight up “sabotage.”

“Republicans’ plan to shut down the government on purpose to sabotage our pandemic response is extraordinarily cynical and dangerous,” Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat, said in a statement. “Countering vaccination efforts at what may prove one of the most critical moments of the pandemic, with the discovery of a concerning new variant, could have disastrous consequences for the American people and the recovering US economy.”

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