Republicans in Congress are seeking to capitalize on discontent about the federal coronavirus response while the party’s presidential contenders are vying to be the biggest foe of restrictions.
WASHINGTON — Republicans on Tuesday pushed legislation through the House that would repeal vaccine mandates and declare the pandemic over, blowing past Democratic opposition in a broader drive to use the federal response to the coronavirus spread against President Biden and his party, stoking a culture war over a major public health challenge.
The largely party-line votes to block the government from requiring health care workers to take the coronavirus vaccine and to end the public health emergency declared at the start of the pandemic were the start of a flurry of legislative activity by the G.O.P. this week that has virtually no chance of yielding any new laws, since the measures cannot make it through the Democratic-controlled Senate or to Mr. Biden’s desk, where he would be all but certain to veto them.
But they were the leading edge of a bid by Republicans to use their majority to portray Mr. Biden and Democrats as overreaching bureaucrats who kept pandemic measures in place for far too long, wreaking havoc with the economy, and in some cases costing people their livelihoods with health restrictions and a vaccine shot that they did not want. It is a theme that taps into the grievances of parents who were furious about school closures and the resentments of Americans angry about how the pandemic destabilized their lives, and one that is already shaping the nascent 2024 Republican presidential primary.
“Americans have not recovered from Covid-19,” said Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, a close ally of Speaker Kevin McCarthy who was banned from Twitter over violations of the company’s coronavirus misinformation policy, but has now been assigned to a select subcommittee to investigate the origins of and response to the virus. “Not just in a physical way, but very much in a financial way and in an emotional way.”
Democrats are pushing back hard on the effort by painting Republicans as extremists who are rushing to repeal public health measures without proper planning.
“This is not serious legislating; this is political posturing,” said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, who said the effort was designed to undermine Mr. Biden as he attempts to bring the pandemic to an end in a reasonable way. “We all want to move on, but we want to do so responsibly.”
Still, in a sign that the White House grasps the potency of the issue, officials on Monday night said Mr. Biden planned to let the coronavirus public health emergency expire in May, signaling that the administration believes the pandemic has moved into a new, less dire phase. And seven Democrats crossed party lines to support ending the vaccine mandate for health care workers, reflecting the appeal of the issue beyond the Republican Party base. The bill passed 227-203, while the measure to terminate the public health emergency was approved 220-210 along party lines.
“The White House is in full retreat on this issue,” Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky, said on Tuesday. “It’s because he’s lost the confidence of the American people on this issue.”
Yet the Republican push to focus on the coronavirus response, which will continue on Wednesday with a vote on a bill to curtail pandemic-era remote work policies, comes with significant risk. It has amplified the voices of some hard-right members who have espoused vaccine conspiracy theories that hold strong appeal within the party’s base but alienate broad swaths of Americans.
Traditional Republican leaders such as Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, worry spotlighting these views could more deeply stain the Republican brand as extreme.
About 500 Americans currently die per day from Covid, a significant decrease from the height of the pandemic.
Even so, the White House encouraged Democrats to oppose the Republican bills, arguing in an official policy statement that an “abrupt end to the emergency declarations would create wide-ranging chaos and uncertainty throughout the health care system — for states, for hospitals and doctors’ offices, and, most importantly, for tens of millions of Americans.” The White House also said declaring the pandemic over prematurely would negatively impact border security policy.
The debate unfolded as the politics of the coronavirus are already influencing the early contours of the Republican presidential race, where a contest appears to be afoot for who can brand himself the bigger opponent of coronavirus response measures.
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Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is said to be weighing a run for president, has sought to use his aggressive pushback against pandemic restrictions — including his opposing lockdowns and mask and vaccine mandates and challenging the safety of the vaccines and the motivations of the pharmaceutical companies that produced them — to define his political identity.
Allies of former President Donald J. Trump long ago determined it was politically unwise for him to publicly claim credit for his administration fast-tracking the coronavirus vaccines, even though the effort, branded “Operation Warp Speed,” is widely viewed as among his administration’s biggest successes.
In December 2021, Mr. Trump was taken aback by the boos he received from an ardently pro-Trump audience after he told them he had taken a coronavirus booster shot.
The boast has since vanished from his speeches and now Mr. Trump is trying to blunt Mr. DeSantis’s perceived advantage with the anti-vaccine base.
In a sign of how toxic the conversation about the coronavirus vaccines has become within the GOP, Mr. Trump’s allies are building a file of “opposition research” on Mr. DeSantis that consists of videos of him praising the vaccine in its early days. A Trump ally involved in the effort, who insisted on anonymity to discuss their plans, said the footage included Mr. DeSantis taking delivery of some of the first vaccines in America and “news B-roll of DeSantis presiding over vaccinations of elderly people.”
To emphasize the point, the Trump ally texted several photographs of Mr. DeSantis standing over a woman getting vaccinated. “He personally wheeled her to get jabbed,” the ally added, sending another photograph of Mr. DeSantis pushing an older woman in a wheelchair.
Mr. Trump’s former strategist, Steve Bannon, who is close to many far-right House Republicans, said he had advised lawmakers to pursue investigations of coronavirus vaccines and the companies that made them.
“The vax — its creation, approval, mandatory application, damage — is a central issue for a vast majority of MAGA,” Mr. Bannon said in a text. “The intensity of anger on this issue overwhelms virtually everything else.”
Mr. Bannon’s view is not shared by Tony Fabrizio, the top pollster for Mr. Trump’s super PAC.
Mr. Fabrizio said in an interview that coronavirus restrictions have faded as an issue as the federal and state governments have removed them.
“This satisfies an itch more inside the Republican conference than it does with voters,” Mr. Fabrizio said, adding: “While there may be some latent anger with the base about vaccine mandates and school closures and masks — and for sure there is, and any Republican that would support those policies would find themselves on the losing end of a Republican primary — outside the base play, I’m not sure it gets you that far.”
That has not stopped Republicans like Ms. Greene, who successfully pressured Mr. McCarthy to hold hostage last year’s defense bill until Democrats accepted a demand — strenuously opposed by the White House and the Pentagon — that it end the coronavirus vaccine mandate for members of the military.
Following the recent death of the pro-Trump political commentator Lynnette Hardaway — better known as “Diamond” in the duo “Diamond and Silk” — Ms. Greene of Georgia tweeted that she demanded “an IMMEDIATE investigation into Covid vaccines and the dramatic increase of people dying suddenly!”
Asked in an interview about Ms. Greene’s desire to investigate coronavirus vaccines, the chairman of the House’s coronavirus select subcommittee, Representative Brad Wenstrup, Republican of Ohio and a former medical doctor who has enthusiastically promoted the coronavirus vaccines, said it was legitimate to ask questions.
“You know, it’s like, you may get a flu shot and fall down the steps,” Mr. Wenstrup said. “The flu shot didn’t make you fall down the steps, necessarily. But you want to report adverse events and look for patterns.”
In an interview, Ms. Greene said she looked forward to working with Mr. Wenstrup even though she described him as “very pro-vaccine” and herself as “completely opposite.”
“I pretty much have the heartbeat of the base on this issue,” Ms. Greene said. “I understand how they think because I think the exact same way.”