DeSantis, Republicans say they will challenge federal vaccine rule

The Florida governor called President Biden’s proposal unconstitutional and said he is doubling down on COVID policies that have so far not worked.
Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference at Camping World Stadium in Orlando on Aug. 16.
Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference at Camping World Stadium in Orlando on Aug. 16.
Published Sept. 10, 2021

Less than an hour before President Joe Biden announced an ambitious plan to require many businesses to ensure full vaccination or require weekly COVID testing of employees, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis had already vowed to fight it.

“I can say the one thing that I’m concerned about is them trying to force mandates on individuals and businesses,” said DeSantis on Thursday afternoon in response to questions during a press conference in Pasco County.

“I just think that that’s fundamentally wrong, and I think that the more and more this has become coercive, where people have threatened mandates and firing and business consequences ... the more people it alienates,” he added.

He intensified his message on Friday, calling Biden’s proposal unconstitutional and saying the president is doubling down on COVID policies that have so far not worked against the disease. “The problem I have with Joe Biden more than anything, this guy doesn’t take responsibility for anything. He’s always trying to blame other people, blame other states,” said DeSantis during a press conference.

Related: Biden new COVID vaccine order: ‘We are in the tough stretch’

DeSantis, who has previously sparred with Biden over mask mandates in schools, is just one of a growing list of Republican state officials who are pledging to take action against the latest federal measure intended to curb COVID deaths and infections. While Biden did not name DeSantis or any other official, he made it clear he is targeting governors who have so far refused to implement stricter requirements for the unvaccinated.

The latest proposed measure, which the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has still not released in full, would require businesses with more than 100 employees to confirm all of their workers are fully vaccinated, or otherwise require them to submit to weekly COVID tests. Biden said he is also requiring businesses of this size to provide paid time off for their employees so they can get the vaccine.

“The bottom line: We’re going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated co-workers,” Biden said Thursday.

Federal contractors and health care facilities that participate in Medicaid and Medicare will face even stricter requirements of mandatory vaccinations.

Republicans tease actions over new rule

GOP state officials around the country are already preparing to challenge the proposed rule in what is shaping up to be the latest battle over pandemic politics. While DeSantis’ office did not say exactly what type of action it might take to fight the new rule, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody tweeted on Friday that Biden “does not have the legal authority to force vaccines on millions of Americans’' and said her office would take “any and all action” possible to stop it.

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“Have at it,” Biden said Friday in response to a question about possible legal challenges from state-level Republicans.

“Look, I’m so disappointed that particularly some Republican governors have been so cavalier with the health of these kids, so cavalier with the health of their communities. We’re playing for real here. This isn’t a game,” Biden said during a visit to a school in Washington.

Moody and DeSantis are joined by a wide swath of Republican officials.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican who is running for governor in 2022, floated a lawsuit.

In Missouri, Republican Gov. Mike Parson said he would fight attempts to force people to get the vaccine and floated the possibility of a special legislative session in response to Biden’s policies.

“I don’t plan on letting that happen in Missouri. I think the president’s just totally wrong on the policy he’s setting forth,” Parson told The Kansas City Star. “... He’s not a dictator, nor should he be acting like that.”

The Republican Governors Association sought to use the policy as a hammer against vulnerable Democratic governors up for re-election in 2022. “Let’s see who Democrat governors side with: Joe Biden or the families and businesses they were elected to represent,” the group said in a statement Thursday evening.

Meanwhile, White House press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed Republican opposition to Biden’s new measures during a press briefing on Friday.

“Yes, we do see some loud, vocal opponents of what the president announced yesterday. That’s not a surprise,” said Psaki.

Psaki said the policy will withstand a potential court challenge because of the 1970 law that created OSHA.

“It requires the Department of Labor to take action when it finds grave risks to workers, and certainly a pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 people, where 25% of eligible people who have not yet been vaccinated, poses a grave risk,” she said.

Backlash for Democrats?

In Florida, DeSantis has led much of the resistance against mask and vaccine requirements, focusing instead on opening dozens of monoclonal antibody treatment sites around the state and inspiring other Republican governors to take on similar efforts. Despite his opposition to mandates, the governor has encouraged Floridians to get vaccinated, especially the elderly.

Alex Conant, a Washington-based GOP consultant with extensive Florida experience, said the new policy makes sense for Biden politically despite the backlash from Republicans.

“It’s clear that Biden’s approval ratings rise and fall with case numbers, and he needs to drive down case numbers if he’s going to get his approval ratings back up,” Conant said. “For DeSantis, I think the calculus is different… The opposition amongst the conservative base was unanimous and instantaneous.”

Conant said some business leaders will actually welcome the rule because it’ll allow them to enact vaccination requirements without taking responsibility for the policy.

“Their employees can be mad at President Biden instead of their CEO,” said Conant, who previously worked for Sen. Marco Rubio.

Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat from Broward County, dismissed DeSantis’ threats to take action against the new rule and said he’s not worried about the backlash Democrats might suffer as a result of Biden’s sweeping order.

“The unfortunate part of all of this is that Governor DeSantis is so damn worried about running for president and appeasing his base that he’s taken the entire state of Florida along with him,” said Jones, who represents a majority Black district and added COVID has disproportionately hurt many of his constituents.

“What the president said yesterday is he’s trying to save this country ... On top of that, he’s having to govern a bunch of adult children who want to play politics,” said Jones. “If Governor DeSantis continues to go down the road he’s going, court rulings are not the only things he’s going to lose.”

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