Missouri Republicans are clamoring to thwart President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccination plan, with legislators weighing proposals that echo the new state law prohibiting local enforcement of federal gun laws.
The president’s announcement last week that the federal government will require most workplaces with more than 100 employees to ensure their workers are vaccinated or submit to regular testing has come under widespread condemnation from GOP legislators, who have vowed to take action against the plan.
But Gov. Mike Parson has so far not called a special session — limiting what lawmakers could do as they gathered in Jefferson City on Wednesday for the General Assembly’s annual veto session.
Instead, top Republican leaders suggested action may come this fall and other conservatives floated the idea of somehow banning enforcement of the Biden plan. A state law blocking federal officials from enforcing vaccination rules would set the stage for an extraordinary confrontation between Missouri and the federal government.
The rule was announced by Biden as the latest effort nationally to boost flagging vaccination rates as the more dangerous delta variant has swept through low-vaccination states. Missouri’s vaccination rate sits at 46.5%. Biden has already made clear he expects lawsuits against the rule, telling opponents last week to “have at it.”
At a House hearing on Wednesday, Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman suggested the General Assembly could “enact a ban, say we’re not going to comply with this federal mandate.” Coleman, an Arnold Republican, is running for state Senate.
Others have conceded that they may need to wait for the order to be issued by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration before drafting a bill in response.
“It’s unlikely (a veto session would be called) until there is a rule from the feds then we will know exactly what we are up against,” Senate President Dave Schatz, a Sullivan Republican, said in a message to The Star.
Still, conservatives used the veto session to drum up support for lawmakers to act.
Members of the state Senate’s Conservative Caucus held a packed rally with vaccine mandate opponents in the Capitol. Some who spoke, such as Sens. Mike Moon of Ash Grove and Eric Burlison of Battlefield, are running for Congress.
Sen. Rick Brattin, a Harrisonville Republican who decried the mandate as “tyranny,” said he’s still pushing for Parson to call a special session and doesn’t want to wait for the rule to be issued.
He was one of 16 Senators who wrote Parson asking for a session. Parson’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Brattin said he wants lawmakers to push back on the order “in the same approach with the Second Amendment Preservation Act”
That law blocks Missouri and local police from assisting federal agents in enforcement of a variety of federal gun laws. Republicans and gun rights activists pushed it this year hoping to pre-empt expected Biden administration executive orders to more strictly regulate firearms.
Brattin said Missouri could pass a similar law preventing the state’s Department of Labor from helping to enforce the OSHA rule.
At the House Judiciary Committee hearing where Coleman spoke, three lawmakers and four groups representing Missouri employers testified against the expected federal action.
Jorgen Schlemeier, lobbyist for the Missouri Assisted Living Association, told Coleman a state law against the federal rule would “certainly” help member nursing homes retain staff.
The hearing was held at the request of House Speaker Rob Vescovo and other Republican leaders, who on Tuesday sent the Biden administration a letter asking for “legal justification” for the vaccine plan. Committee chair David Evans, a West Plains Republican, said afterward that he didn’t “have legislation developed at this time.”
“Legally, you can’t argue against something that doesn’t yet exist,” he said.
The hearing mirrored the session of a House budget subcommittee Tuesday over the potential effects of a federal vaccine requirement for nursing home staff.
Representatives of nursing home associations and business groups such as the Missouri Chamber of Commerce told the committee Wednesday that a vaccine rule would hamstring businesses already struggling to fill jobs in a tight labor market. They warned that employees would flock to businesses with fewer than 100 employees that would not be subject to the OSHA rule.
Schlemeier acknowledged nursing homes would be safer if more employees were vaccinated. But he said a vaccine rule would exacerbate the challenges of competing for staff who might be drawn to easier jobs such as retail and fast food as the state minimum wage rises. Less than half of Missouri nursing home staff are vaccinated, according to federal data, lagging behind the national rate of more than 60%.
“It will leave seniors without enough staff to care for them,” he said of the vaccine rule. “I’m sure somebody is thinking, ‘Oh, even an unvaccinated employee is better than no employee.’ It’s not a great choice. It’s not a choice that any of our facilities want to be in.”
House Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann, an O’Fallon Republican who said he has been vaccinated, said he wants to form an interim committee to continue hearing testimony from employers about the effects of the rule.
Rep. Nick Schroer, an O’Fallon Republican who is running for state Senate, said he has not taken the shot and has antibodies from being previously infected with COVID. He reiterated a call for a special session, saying “if we do not take action tomorrow, the federal government could force companies to penalize gun ownership by labeling firearms a danger to public health.”
He sparred with Rep. Ian Mackey, a St. Louis Democrat, over Mackey’s inquiries into his vaccination status, leading Evans to cut off debate over what he termed a “personal attack.”
“You’re not vaccinated, you haven’t given much thought to masks,” Mackey said. “I’m just curious what you’ve done throughout the pandemic, either as an individual or a politician … what you’ve done to just do your part.”
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