Republicans pitch return to 'normalcy' in efforts to roll back COVID precautions

GOP lawmakers say COVID-19 is here to stay.

February 17, 2022, 5:03 AM

Republican lawmakers, capitalizing on the growing national pushback on COVID-19 precautions, are amping up their efforts to implement a return to "normalcy," proposing a flurry of legislative activity aimed at rolling back several Biden administration precautions.

The Biden administration's pandemic exit strategy has been tested in recent weeks as Democratic governors in multiple states preempted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and rolled back masking requirements. While the CDC said Wednesday it would deliver updated guidance "soon," Republicans are stepping on the gas and hoping to demonstrate that their party is delivering "normalcy" by rolling back restrictions leading up to midterms the GOP says will serve as a referendum on President Joe Biden's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans are increasingly turning their attention toward slashing government-mandated pandemic precautions. GOP Leader Mitch McConnell has been at the forefront of the charge, giving multiple speeches this month declaring the pandemic "endemic" and noting that many Americans are eager to return to their lives unencumbered by pandemic-related restrictions.

"American families deserve normalcy," McConnell said during remarks on the Senate floor Monday. "They deserve it now."

Because of the way these GOP legislative challenges are being brought, several are guaranteed a vote on the Senate floor.

PHOTO: Senator Roger Marshall speaks during a Republican news conference about inflation at Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 16, 2022.
Senator Roger Marshall speaks during a Republican news conference about inflation at Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 16, 2022.
Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., filed a challenge to existing vaccine mandates imposed by the Biden administration using a procedural tool called the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to overturn rules created by federal agencies and only requires 51 votes to pass the Senate. Challenges to federal rules made with this tool must be brought to a vote.

Marshall's effort would repeal Biden's vaccine mandate for health care workers, many of whom are required to be vaccinated under current rules for Medicare and Medicaid workers.

It won't be first time that Republicans have used this tool to force a vote on vaccine mandates onto the floor. In December, the Senate voted 52-48 to repeal Biden's vaccine mandate on private businesses owners with over 100 employees, after Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., led a separate Congressional Review Act effort.

The Supreme Court ultimately overturned that vaccine mandate. And though the Senate-backed bill was never brought up for a vote in the House, the Senate vote demonstrated some bipartisan desire to curb federal pandemic restrictions. Two Democrats joined with Republicans to pass that vaccine mandate repeal, and it's possible Marshall's effort, or a separate pandemic restriction challenge spearheaded by Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and John Boozman, R-Ark., using the same procedural tool, could enjoy similar across-the-aisle support.

Thune and Boozman are challenging a rule from the Department of Health and Human Services that requires young children in Head Start programs, which are funded by the federal government, to always wear masks, even during outdoor play.

"Not only is this decision to police schoolyard activities yet another affront to parents’ rights by the Biden administration, even worse is nothing about this nationwide policy is based on science or common sense,” Thune said in a statement.

This challenge comes just days after Pfizer announced that the Food and Drug Administration postponed its review of the Pfizer vaccine for children 5 and under. While COVID-19 has not had as severe an impact on young children as adults, the latest omicron surge hit children harder than previous variants largely because of their unvaccinated status. The CDC still recommends indoor masking for unvaccinated people, including children over 2.

PHOTO: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves a lunch meeting with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill, Feb. 15, 2022.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves a lunch meeting with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill, Feb. 15, 2022.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Still, the effort has support from McConnell and a large swath of the Republican conference.

"Parents and kids need a swift end to pandemic disruptions that ignore the incredibly low risk to children," McConnell said Wednesday.

GOP-led pushback on pandemic restrictions will likely consume Senate floor time as early as Thursday.

Several Republican lawmakers are demanding votes on amendments to a government funding bill that must pass by Friday to prevent a government shutdown. Two of the amendments they're insisting on are aimed at rolling back pandemic precautions.

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz's amendment, which seeks to pull federal funding for schools if mask mandates remain in place for children, is expected to be one of the amendments voted on.

“It ought to be a choice of the parents whether a child should be vaccinated, and it shouldn’t be a government bureaucrat forcing kids to be vaccinated,” Cruz told ABC News Wednesday.

A Lee amendment that bans federal funds from being used to implement any remaining federal mask mandates is also expected to receive a vote.

Separately, Republicans are pushing to end the national state of emergency declaration on COVID-19, led by a resolution introduced by Marshall.

The administration renewed the state of emergency declaration for the eighth time late last month. Doing so allows federal funding for pandemic relief to continue.

But Marshall, echoing the sentiments of many of his GOP colleagues, said an end to the declaration could help the nation transition to a world where COVID-19 is a reality of life.

"It's clear we need a new approach to COVID as we learn to live with it," Marshall said in a statement. "That new approach starts with putting an end to the COVID national state of emergency."

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