For GOP base, battles over covid vaccines and closures still resonate

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For many Americans, the relentless focus on covid seems largely a thing of the past: Far fewer are wearing masks, businesses and schools are mostly open, and many people have learned to live with the occasional threat of contracting the virus.

But among activist Republicans, immense anger and resentment persists at government policies aimed at curbing the pandemic, such as vaccine mandates, school closures and mask requirements. And as that anger bubbles up in the newly Republican-controlled House and among potential GOP presidential contenders, it is shaping up as a significant part of the party’s message.

Former president Donald Trump, who has announced he is seeking the presidency in 2024, and a potential leading rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), have begun fiercely sparring over who did a better job of rejecting public health measures they viewed as overreach. In remarks to reporters on Saturday, Trump accused DeSantis of “trying to rewrite history” on his response to the pandemic, saying that “Florida was closed for a long period of time.”

DeSantis has lately styled himself a public health dove who presided over the “free state of Florida,” and he has become increasingly hostile toward the coronavirus vaccines. He hit back on the former president Tuesday, noting that he was resoundingly reelected while Trump was not in 2020.

“If you take a crisis situation like covid … the good thing is that the people are able to render a judgment on that, whether they reelect you or not,” DeSantis said at a news conference. “I’m happy to say in my case … we won.”

On Capitol Hill, House Republicans are focused this week on delivering a political message to their base: The pandemic has long been over and the Biden administration doesn’t realize it. House GOP leaders lined up four pandemic-related votes that aim to end two coronavirus emergency declarations, lift the vaccine mandate for many health workers, and require federal agencies to reinstate their pre-pandemic telework policies.

“House Republicans are voting on legislation to restore our constitutional rights and freedoms after two long years of Democrats’ covid-19 power grab policies,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), the No. 3 House Republican, said Tuesday, blasting “extended covid lockdowns” and “unconstitutional vaccine mandates.”

In a party-line 220-210 vote Tuesday evening, the House passed the bill to end the current public health emergency, which provides flexibility for the health-care system and states to handle the pandemic. The chamber also agreed in a 227-203 vote to terminate the vaccine mandate for health-care workers whose services are billed under Medicare and Medicaid, with seven Democrats crossing party lines to support the measure.

The Democratic-led Senate is highly unlikely to pass the bills, however, so the votes are largely a way for House Republicans to make a point. In response, President Biden announced he is planning to end the national and public health emergencies himself — though in May, not immediately as House Republicans want.

But while the GOP base continues to be fired up about covid mandates, it’s not clear that centrist voters or even moderate Republicans attach similar importance to the issue. In 2020, polls suggest, Trump’s handling of the pandemic hurt him among important groups of voters.

House Republicans are pushing ahead with congressional hearings on the pandemic beginning Wednesday, with the House Oversight Committee convening to analyze fraud in covid-19 relief spending and a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee examining challenges to investigating the origins of the pandemic.

The moves are part of a broader effort by GOP leaders, many of them deeply skeptical of the nation’s scientific establishment, to probe the pandemic and Biden’s response as both parties race to shape the public narrative.

For many Republicans, covid restrictions epitomize their fear of government intrusion into private life. Studies have shown that shutdowns in March and April of 2020 saved tens of thousands of lives and prevented even more covid hospitalizations. But even some Democrats have argued that schools remained closed far longer than they needed to and after there was evidence that children did not get infected at the same rates or with nearly the same severity as adults.

Republican strategists say issues like inflation and immigration are still the top issues among GOP voters, but that the covid debate will likely play a significant role in shaping the Republican message ahead of the 2024 elections.

“It’s a very passionate issue, and there’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm for the voters who care about it,” Republican strategist Corry Bliss said. “Over the past two years, the skepticism of big government, the skepticism of government bureaucrats telling you what to do, has only grown. And the takeaway a lot of people have is those in charge made it up and had no idea what they were doing.”

For Democrats, the current push is an extension of conservatives’ insistence on embracing false conspiracy theories from the beginning, like saying the virus is not a real threat, vaccines are harmful and unproven treatments are effective.

Among a faction of hard-line Republicans, conspiracy theories about coronavirus immunizations clearly continue to flourish. They blame the vaccine for almost any widely publicized health event whose cause seems less than obvious, such as the death of sportswriter Grant Wahl of an aortic aneurysm or the collapse of Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin from cardiac arrest.

And many Republicans have vilified Anthony S. Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, vowing to haul him up to Capitol Hill for hearings.

The Biden administration has long contended that, while the coronavirus has not and will not go away, the country now has the tools to manage it. They point to widespread availability of high-quality masks, at-home tests, vaccines, boosters and effective treatments for covid infections, such as Paxlovid.

In addition, polls show that covid has faded as a top voter concern. Still, even some Biden officials have said they underestimated some of the anger that would follow coronavirus vaccine mandates.

At their state convention last Saturday, for instance, Arizona Republicans adopted a resolution against “experimental vaccines,” mask mandates and businesses requiring proof of vaccination.

“A great many people on the center-right instinctively resist government mandates to do anything. Resistance to vaccine mandates is rooted in that fundamental resistance,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “It’s an issue that helps people draw distinctions between elected officials’ records.”

That is already playing out between Trump and DeSantis, though the two were largely aligned when Trump was president and DeSantis was in his first term as governor. “The president has been outstanding through all of this,” DeSantis said in a Fox News interview in April 2020.

After initially resisting pressure for a stay-at-home order, DeSantis changed course on April 1 and shut down all nonessential services for 30 days. DeSantis explained the move by stressing that he was coordinating with the White House.

But the dynamic has dramatically changed between the two in the time since, as both have moved sharply against covid restrictions in response to the fury of the Republican base and sought to downplay their earlier support for such measures.

Trump has backed off touting the vaccines he previously championed, dropping them from his stump speech and instead promising to reinstate service members who were discharged for refusing the shots. DeSantis has gone so far as to suggest throwing Fauci “across the Potomac.”

The drama is playing out at the state level as well. A lawsuit by the Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri, alleging that federal officials conspired with Twitter to suppress information about the pandemic, has led to depositions of Fauci and other federal officials.

In Congress, Republicans have decided to continue a special investigative panel focused on the coronavirus, but significantly altered its mission. Democrats established the panel in spring 2020, focusing much of its work on the Trump administration’s pandemic response and fraud in coronavirus aid programs. In contrast, the GOP-commissioned subcommittee will investigate pandemic-related school closures, the development of vaccines and treatments, and the expenditure of covid aid.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) appointed nine Republicans to serve on the panel, some of whom have spread misinformation about vaccines, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), or who have claimed the omicron variant was a hoax, such as Rep. Ronny Jackson (Tex.), a former presidential physician.

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), who chairs the Oversight Committee, has rejected the idea that the Republican investigations are political, saying abuses that occurred during the pandemic must be scrutinized. But some experts fear that by now the subject has become irrevocably politicized.

“Government oversight is important,” said Jen Kates, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “But if it follows the pattern that we’ve seen over the last three years, it’s probably going to be very political. And that would be the case, I think, for whoever was leading the probes here.”

Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.