Joe Biden says Republican governors undermining his vaccine mandates

President Joe Biden on Thursday defended his administration's new vaccine mandates and said Republican governors undermining the requirements are putting lives at risk.

"We're facing a lot of pushback, especially from some of the Republican governors. The governors of Florida and Texas are doing everything they can to undermine the life-saving requirements that I've proposed," Biden said, specifically calling out GOP Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida.

Biden also took aim at Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, who blasted Biden's vaccine requirements as "clearly unconstitutional" and likened them to "tyranny."

Joe Biden says Republican governors undermining his vaccine mandates are putting lives at risk

Biden said: "In Mississippi, children are required to be vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, hepatitis B, polio, tetanus and more. These are state requirements. But in the midst of a pandemic that has already taken over 660,000 lives, I propose a requirement for Covid vaccines and the governor of that state calls it 'a tyrannical-type move'? A tyrannical-type move?"

"This is the worst kind of politics because it's putting the lives of citizens of their states, especially children, at risk. And I refuse to give in to it," Biden said.

The President said the vaccine requirements would save lives and are "what the science tells us we need to do." He said the new mandates would also help strengthen the economy and spur economic growth.

Biden last week imposed stringent new vaccine rules on federal workers, large employers and health care staff in his strongest push yet to require vaccines for much of the country and contain the latest surge of Covid-19. The new requirements could apply to as many as 100 million Americans, which is close to two-thirds of the American workforce.

Biden also argued the US is at an inflection point as he pushed for the passage of his economic packages in Congress.

"I believe we're at an inflection point in this country -- one of those moments where the decisions we're about to make can change, literally change the trajectory of our nation. For years and possibly decades to come," Biden said, speaking from the White House.

The President continued: "Each inflection point in this nation's history represents a fundamental choice. I believe that America at this moment is facing such a choice."

"The choice is this: Are we going to continue with an economy where the overwhelming share of the benefits go to big corporations and the very wealthy? Or are we going to take this moment right now to set this country on a new path, one that invests in this nation, creates real sustained economic growth and that benefits everyone, including working people and middle class folks," Biden said.

The speech comes as sharp divisions in the Democratic Party threaten to bog down Biden's $3.5 trillion economic package to expand the nation's social safety net, which is the centerpiece of the President's agenda.

The $3.5 trillion plan includes funding for paid family leave, education, health care and to address the climate crisis. Senators are at odds over the price tag of the plan, the tax hikes to pay for it, the health care provisions in the proposal and climate provisions that liberals are insisting must be included.

Biden on Thursday continued to push for the tax hikes on the wealthiest Americans and corporations that some senators have taken issue with.

"Big corporations and the super wealthy have to start paying their fair share of taxes. It's long overdue. I'm not out to punish anyone. I'm a capitalist. If you can make a million or a billion dollars, that's great, God bless you. All I'm asking is that you pay your fair share," Biden said.

The disagreements within the Democratic Party on many aspects of the plan have raised questions about whether all 50 members of the Senate's Democratic caucus can quickly unite behind the legislation. Democrats are planning to pass this legislation using the budget reconciliation process, which only requires 50 votes and would therefore not need Republican support.

If that economic package stalls in the Senate, liberals are warning they will sink the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill as well, which is also key to Biden's agenda.

Congressional leaders have set an end-of-September deadline in the House to pass their massive budget bill alongside the separate bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Earlier this week, Biden focused on and touted the investments that the twin economic proposals would make to address the climate crisis. The President traveled to California and Idaho to survey damage from wildfires and argued that extreme weather events were only increasing in intensity and frequency and that the nation needed to act swiftly to address the climate crisis.

The packages contain hundreds of billions of new climate investments, which Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has argued will get the US most of the way to hitting Biden's fossil-fuel emissions target of 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030.

GOP prosecutors threaten lawsuits over vaccine requirement

Two dozen Republican attorneys general warned the White House on Thursday of impending legal action if a proposed coronavirus vaccine requirement for as many as 100 million Americans goes into effect.

Your plan is disastrous and counterproductive,” the prosecutors, led by Attorney General Alan Wilson of South Carolina, wrote in a letter sent to President Joe Biden. “If your Administration does not alter its course, the undersigned state Attorneys General will seek every available legal option to hold you accountable and uphold the rule of law.”

The letter is the latest GOP opposition to sweeping new federal vaccine requirements for private-sector employees, health care workers and federal contractors announced by Biden earlier this month. The requirement, to be enacted through a rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is part of an all-out effort to curb the surging COVID-19 delta variant.

The OSHA rule, which covers nearly two-thirds of the private sector workforce, would last six months, after which it must be replaced by a permanent measure. Employers that don’t comply could face penalties of up to $13,600 per violation.

Once it’s out, the rule would take effect in 29 states where OSHA has jurisdiction, according to a primer by the law firm Fisher Phillips. Other states like California and North Carolina that have their own federally approved workplace safety agencies would have up to 30 days to adopt equivalent measures.

Republican leaders — and some union chiefs, too — have said that Biden was going too far in trying to muscle private companies and workers. One of the first to speak out was Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina, who said on Twitter that his state would fight to “the gates of hell to protect the liberty and livelihood of every South Carolinian.”

Writing to Biden that the vaccine “edict is also illegal,” Wilson warned that courts have fully upheld only one of 10 emergency temporary OSHA standards in recent decades.

The prosecutors also cautioned that the “edict is unlikely to win hearts and minds — it will simply drive further skepticism” over vaccines.

“Your vaccine mandate represents not only a threat to individual liberty, but a public health disaster that will displace vulnerable workers and exacerbate a nationwide hospital staffing crisis, with severe consequences for all Americans,” they write.

In lieu of vaccine or weekly testing requirements, the prosecutors proposed that some companies could have employees work remotely, rather than report in person.

In addition to Wilson in South Carolina, the letter was signed by attorneys general in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Small agency, big job: Joe Biden tasks OSHA with vaccine mandate

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t make many headlines. Charged with keeping America’s workplaces safe, it usually busies itself with tasks such as setting and enforcing standards for goggles, hardhats and ladders.

But President Joe Biden this month threw the tiny Labor Department agency into the raging national debate over federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The president directed OSHA to write a rule requiring employers with at least 100 workers to force employees to get vaccinated or produce weekly test results showing they are virus free.

The assignment is sure to test an understaffed agency that has struggled to defend its authority in court. And the legal challenges to Biden’s vaccine mandate will be unrelenting: Republican governors and others call it an egregious example of government overreach. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster vowed to fight the mandate “to the gates of hell.

There are going to be some long days and nights for the folks who are drafting this rule,” says labor lawyer Aaron Gelb, a partner in the Chicago office of Conn Maciel Carey. “It’s an interesting time to be an OSHA lawyer for sure.”

When Congress created OSHA 50 years ago to police workplace safety, 38 workers were dying on the job every day. Now that figure is closer to 15even though the American workforce is has more than doubled in the interim. OSHA writes rules designed to protect workers from dangers such as toxic chemicals, rickety scaffolding and cave-ins at construction sites.

The hazard in this case is the infectious worker,” says epidemiologist David Michaels, OSHA director in the Obama administration. “This rule will tell employers: You have to take steps to make sure potentially infectious workers don’t come into the workplace.”

OSHA will use its power under a 1970 law to issue an expedited rule - called an “emergency temporary standard” or ETS -- and bypass its own cumbersome rulemaking process, which typically takes nearly eight years from beginning to end, according to a 2012 study by the Government Accountability Office. To fast-track the rule, OSHA must show that it is acting to protect workers from a “grave danger.”

The mandate the White House announced this month will cover 80 million employeesnearly two-thirds of the private sector workforce. Employers that don’t comply could face penalties of up to $13,600 per violation.

Businesses are anxious to see how OSHA handles questions like: Which vaccines and tests are acceptable and which aren’t? How should employers handle requests from employees who seek exemptions on medical or religious grounds? Who’s going to pay for the testing? Some employers won’t be happy if they have to foot the bill for employees who refuse free vaccinations.

Once it’s out, the rule would take effect in 29 states where OSHA has jurisdiction, according to a primer by the law firm Fisher Phillips. Other states such as California and North Carolina that have their own federally approved workplace safety agencies would have up to 30 days to adopt equivalent measures. The OSHA rule would last six months, after which it must be replaced by a permanent measure.

There are going to be legal challenges brought to whatever rule,” attorney Gelb said. “OSHA is going to really devote time and effort to drafting a rule that will survive those legal challenges.” He predicts the rule won’t be published in the Federal Register until November.

The agency is already often stretched thin. Even including what OSHA calls its “partners” at state workplace safety agencies, there are only 1,850 inspectors to oversee 130 million workers at 8 million workplaces. “It is not helpful to have a critical agency like this understaffed, particularly because of moments like this,” says Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

Until June, when it issued a COVID-related ETS covering the health care industry, OSHA hadn’t implemented an emergency rule since 1983. Overall, it has issued 10. But courts have overturned four and partially blocked a fifth, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Michaels, now a professor of public health at George Washington University, says the “grave danger” is obvious in a country battling a pandemic that has killed more than 650,000 Americans. “OSHA’s plan very clearly fits those requirements,” he says. “And I’m not worried about a court saying it doesn’t.”

Many employers may welcome the mandate. They wanted to require vaccines but feared alienating their workers who resist being coerced into getting inoculated. “Most employers in my view should greet this with relief,” says McNicholas, former special counsel at the National Labor Relations Board. “This gives them a roadmap of exactly what they need to do.”

Then again, at a time when companies are posting job openings faster than applicants can fill them, some big employers fear losing vaccine-resistant employees to smaller businesses that aren’t covered by the mandate. “It may actually help these smaller businesses who are struggling to attract employees,” says Nicholas Hulse, a Fisher Phillips labor lawyer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Hulse says the mandate is “going to be difficult to enforce.” OSHA, he says, likely will rely less on its own inspectors uncovering violations and more on complaints from insiders — workers who growfrustrated either with the employer for not implementing it or with fellow employees who are not following the mandate.”

Former OSHA chief Michaels calls Biden’s mandate “a very good first step. But we need more.” He wants to see the rules expanded to smaller employers. “Until we stop this, losing hundreds of people every day to this disease, we’ll never get back to any sort of normalcy,” he says.

More than 175 million Americans are fully vaccinated. But 80 million of those eligible for inoculation haven’t yet received their first shot, the White House says.

The Biden administration is also requiring vaccinations for federal workers and contractors and for 17 million healthcare workers. Those initiatives plus the vaccination or testing mandate for big employers should add 12 million to the ranks of the vaccinated by March 2022, Goldman Sachs estimates.

Most employers will voluntarily meet the standards because that’s what they do with all OSHA rules,” Michaels says. “Large employers in particular, they have (human resources) teams, they have attorneys who tell them: ‘This is what the law says and this is what we have to do’ ... I think most employers are going to do the right thing here, and we’ll see very high levels of compliance pretty quickly.”

McConnell unmoved on debt limit, risking turmoil for Biden

The Biden administration has been enlisting one emissary after another to convince Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to help raise the federal debt limit.

It’s not working.

Despite the high-level conversations, including a call from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the GOP leader is digging in and playing political hardball. He’s telling all who will listen that it’s up to the Democrats, who have narrow control of Congress, to take the unpopular vote over federal borrowing on their own.

McConnell’s stance is deepening a political standoff and risking turbulence in the financial markets that could ripple into the broader economy. His refusal to rally Republican votes leaves Democrats with only tough choices as they rush to ensure the nation does not default on any of its accumulated debt, which now stands at $28.4 trillion.

President Joe Biden and the Democratic leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, are scheduled to speak Thursday afternoon. While there is little doubt the Democrats will be able to avert a crisis and vote to allow additional borrowing, the path ahead is uncertain and potentially treacherous.

“We are working, there are a number of different options,” Schumer told reporters earlier this week at the Capitol. “We will do it because its imperative to do it. And Leader McConnell, as I said, is playing dangerous political games by not stepping up to the plate.”

The showdown is sparking a fiscal battle that is reminiscent, but different, from those that have set Washington and Wall Street on edge at times over the past decade. Unlike the brinksmanship of past battles, this one is unique in that there is no deal to be brokered — McConnell simply will not participate.

Late Wednesday, McConnell warned Yellen he is not changing his mind. “The leader repeated to Secretary Yellen what he has said publicly since July,” said McConnell spokesman Doug Andres. “They will have to raise the debt ceiling on their own and they have the tools to do it.”

It was a similar situation Tuesday when Hank Paulson, who was Treasury secretary in the Bush administration, paid McConnell a visit at the Capitol. Other intermediaries have also reached out, according to a person familiar with the talks and granted anonymity to discuss them.

Lawmakers appear to have only a few weeks to devise a plan for approving the federal government’s debt limit before the U.S. Treasury is forced to delay or miss payments.

Stocks and bonds have been relatively calm recently, indicating investors expect Washington will ultimately reach a deal on the debt ceiling. The S&P 500 remains within 2% of its record set two weeks ago, and prices in the bond market are moving more on reports about the economy and inflation. But the ride could get bumpier in coming weeks.

Because they’re seen as the world’s safest possible investments, U.S. Treasury bills and bonds form the bedrock for financial markets. So a default on the U.S. debt would quickly cascade through markets around the world.

Treasury spokeswoman Lily Adams said in statement Thursday, “Secretary Yellen will continue to talk to Republicans and Democrats about the critical need to swiftly address the debt ceiling in a bipartisan manner, to avoid the catastrophic economic consequences of default.”

The debt limit caps the amount of money Treasury can borrow to keep the government running and pay its debts.

Once a routine task in Congress that brought grumbling from lawmakers but not high-stakes opposition, votes to increase or suspend the debt ceiling are now often contentious.

The debt ceiling vote became a political weapon in 2011, wielded by a new class of tea party Republicans eager to confront the Obama administration as the debt load ballooned during the Great Recession. Prolonged and heated discussions during that crisis risked a federal default, a first in the modern era, but eventually a deal was brokered to begin to curtail spending levels.

Democrats note that on three occasions during President Donald Trump’s presidency, they worked with a Republican-controlled Senate and White House to suspend the borrowing limit. They are insisting that Republicans reciprocate and share in what can be a politically unpopular vote that allows the government to not only promptly pay its bills but also to take on more debt.

But in McConnell’s view, if Democrats are going to go it alone to push Biden’s $3.5 trillion budget plan through Congress, they can use their majority to shoulder the debt limit vote.

According to Andres, McConnell told Yellen, “This is a unified Democrat government, engaging in a partisan reckless tax and spending spree.”

An Associated Press analysis of data from the U.S. Treasury shows that nearly 98% of the nation’s $28.4 trillion debt predates Biden’s inauguration in January. That includes about $7.8 trillion heaped onto the pile during Trump’s four-year presidency.

One option would be for Democrats to force the issue by holding a debt ceiling vote either on its own as part of a must-pass bill to keep the government funded pats Oct. 1 — and try to make McConnell and the Republicans blink.

It would take 60 votes in the evenly divided Senate, 50-50, to overcome a Republican filibuster, but it’s not at all clear McConnell or any other GOP senators would break ranks to join Democrats.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., predicted McConnell will hold firm. “I think he is like that Missouri mule that just sat down in the mud and is not going to budge.”

If Republicans refuse to help, Democrats may need to take the more cumbersome route of amending their $3.5 billion budget resolution to include the debt ceiling. That vote would need just 51 votes for approval, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast the tie-breaking vote.

Yellen has been using “extraordinary measures” to conserve cash. But once those measures and cash on hand are fully exhausted, the U.S. will have to rely on incoming receipts to pay its obligations, forcing the Treasury to delay or miss payments. Yellen has projected that moment will arrive sometime in October.

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