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Repeal of military vaccine mandate shows changing pandemic politics

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The elimination of the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate as part of the defense policy bill represents a surprise concession by Democrats, and shows how the politics of the pandemic have changed.

Vaccine mandates have been championed by the Biden administration, congressional Democrats and blue state governors as an important tool in the fight against the coronavirus.

The Pentagon’s policy took effect in August 2021 during the height of the omicron wave, when the Biden administration was pulling out all the stops to jump-start lagging vaccination rates. The mandate has led to the dismissal of nearly 8,500 service members.

Cash giveaways, dating app partnerships and even free college tuition were barely moving the needle, so the administration decided new rules were necessary to force the issue.

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As a result, the White House announced a slew of vaccine-or-test mandates that would cover roughly two-thirds of all public and private sector workers.

Republicans have been steadfast in their opposition. The Supreme Court eventually blocked the administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate for large employers. The court allowed a vaccine-only mandate for health providers at federally funded facilities.

The White House and the Defense Department said the military’s vaccine mandate was essential in protecting troops from COVID-19. The Pentagon has long mandated certain vaccines, and the coronavirus one was no different. The department said it would prevent outbreaks of the virus that could hit entire units, putting military readiness at risk.

Republicans in both chambers saw the annual defense bill as an opportunity to get rid of the Pentagon’s mandate, and threatened to block the $847 billion legislation.

But by giving in to Republican demands, Democrats acknowledged that the public has moved on, and there’s not much appetite for any sort of virus-fighting rules.

“The policy that the Department of Defense implemented in August of 2021 … was absolutely the right policy. It saved lives and it made sure our force was as ready as it possibly could be in the face of the pandemic,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, (D-Wash.), said during a speech before the House Rules Committee defending the authorization bill.

“As we are here in December 2022, does that August 2021 policy still make sense? We don’t believe that it is, and I don’t believe that it is,” Smith said.

Smith noted that the Pentagon’s policy is outdated, because it only requires a soldier to get the primary vaccine series.

“Someone who got that shot back in April 2021, that is not protecting you at all today. I think the science on that is very clear, some 18 months later. But the policy says if you got that, you’re good,” Smith said. “So, I think it’s time to update the policy.”

Public health experts agreed that the policy is outdated. The majority of COVID-19 infections are caused by substrains of the omicron variant, and the administration is trying to convince the public to get booster shots that specifically target the omicron variant.

“If it’s not going to be maintained as an up-to-date requirement, it isn’t going to be as effective as it could be, for sure,” said Jen Kates, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Kates said the vaccines still work at keeping people from getting severely ill, and mandates help boost vaccination rates. Eliminating the mandate was done in the interest of political expediency.

“I would argue there are unique reasons why the military might require a vaccination. But because COVID has become so politicized, there’s no appetite to go down that road,” Kates said.

Opponents of the vaccine have argued mandates are not effective, because the vaccine won’t entirely prevent transmission or keep someone from getting sick. They also pointed to President Biden’s public comments that the pandemic is “over.”

Republican leaders celebrated the inclusion of the repeal, while also vowing to continue the fight against the administration’s COVID-19 mitigation strategy next term when Republicans control the House.

“Make no mistake: this is a win for our military,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a statement Tuesday. He said when the GOP takes over the House next year, Republicans will “work to finally hold the Biden administration accountable and assist the men and women in uniform who were unfairly targeted.”

The defense legislation easily passed the House on Thursday, and the Senate is expected to vote next week.

Democrats characterized removing the vaccine mandate as a necessary compromise in order to get Republicans to support the legislation.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on Tuesday that he supported the mandate, but acknowledged that on major bills requiring bipartisan support, like the NDAA, no side gets everything it wants.

With that in mind, he suggested Democrats were open to sacrificing the vaccine mandate for the simple sake of securing passage of the larger defense package.

“We are willing to compromise because we want to make sure we fund the government, and we want to make sure that we get the national defense bill passed. This is a small part of it,” Hoyer said.

“They needed Republican votes,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said she was not involved in the decision to jettison the mandate and did not support it.

“I think it’s kind of a foolish decision, because we say that that’s the only vaccine that soldiers don’t have to have? That seems to me a response to something other than a medical decision,” Shaheen said.

The White House and the Pentagon insist that repealing the mandate is a mistake, and will endanger the health of soldiers.

But administration officials were quick to blame Republicans, even though the legislation was a bipartisan compromise.

“What we think happened here is Republicans in Congress have decided that they’d rather fight against the health and well-being of our troops than protecting them,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday.

“And we believe that it is a mistake, what we saw happen on the NDAA as it relates to the vaccine mandate,“ she added. “Making sure our troops are prepared and ready for service is a priority for President Biden. The vaccination requirement for COVID does just that.”

Mike Lillis contributed.

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Parliamentarians kick off return to House of Commons with debate on child care

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Parliamentarians kick off return

The economy was top of mind for members of Parliament as they returned to the House of Commons Monday, with the Liberal government kicking off the new sitting with a debate on child care.

Families Minister Karina Gould tabled Bill C-35 last December, which seeks to enshrine the Liberals’ national daycare plan into law — and commit Ottawa to maintaining long-term funding.

The federal government has inked deals with provinces and territories in an effort to cut fees down to an average of $10 per day by 2026.

During a debate today, Gould said all parties should support the bill, and the national plan has begun saving families money.

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But Conservative MP Michelle Ferreri said the plan is “subsidizing the wealthy” while failing to reduce wait times for child-care spaces and address labour shortages in the sector.

Ferreri told MPs that the Conservatives would be presenting “strong amendments” to the legislation.

The debate comes amid concerns about a possible recession this year, with both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre saying their focus will be on the cost of living.

But Poilievre’s Tories may have little room to manoeuvre in the legislature.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters upon his return to the House of Commons that he does not believe there is any room to work with the Conservatives during the upcoming sitting.

Instead, the NDP says it plans to push the Liberals to fulfil the terms of the parties’ confidence-and-supply agreement, such as the planned expansion of federal dental care.

Under the deal signed last March, the NDP agreed to support the minority government on key House of Commons votes in exchange for the Liberals moving ahead on New Democrat policy priorities.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2023.

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Premier Heather Stefanson announces new cabinet Monday

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Manitoba’s premier is set to shuffle cabinet after her finance minister said Friday that he’s stepping down, following a list of Progressive Conservative caucus members who have announced their intentions to leave provincial politics.

Heather Stefanson will unveil her new cabinet at a swearing-in at 11 a.m. Monday at the legislative building in Winnipeg.

CBC Manitoba is livestreaming the news conference here, on Facebook and on CBC Gem.

Finance Minister Cameron Friesen announced Friday that he is stepping down to run for a seat in the House of Commons.

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Friesen’s decision was the latest in a series of recent similar announcements.

Four other cabinet ministers — deputy premier Cliff Cullen, Municipal Relations Minister Eileen Clarke, Government Services Minister Reg Helwer and Alan Lagimodiere, minister of Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations — have said they will serve out their terms but not run again.

Roughly one-third of the 36 Tory caucus members elected in 2019 have either quit in the last two years or have said they will not run again in the provincial election scheduled for Oct. 3.

A number of those announcements came earlier this month.

The governing Tories have been trailing the Opposition New Democrats in opinion polls for two years, especially in Winnipeg, where most legislature seats are.

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Biden Classified Documents Discovery Has Flummoxed the Political Press – Esquire

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You have to hand it to our elite political press corps, as long as “it” is a scorpion or a nice ball of buffalo dung. When they get together to prove that they’re above partisan politics and the petty concerns of democracy, they do a great job of it, while simultaneously making a dog’s breakfast of the really important stuff. From NBC News:

An equal number of Americans — 67% — say they are as concerned about classified documents found at President Joe Biden’s residence and former office as they are about those found at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, despite clear differences in how the two men responded to these discoveries[…]The poll finds an American public that’s equally concerned about the discovery of classified documents found at Biden’s and Trump’s homes, even though the current president and ex-president handled their situations in different ways. (Biden and his lawyers have argued that they turned over these classified documents — from his time as Barack Obama’s vice president — as soon as they were discovered and have cooperated with investigators, while Trump failed turn over all requested documents and has lashed out at investigators.)

The gates to Wonderland open wide about halfway through that passage, which taken as a whole is a perfect roadmap for a profession that seems completely adrift. For example, the dependent clause “even though the current president and ex-president handled their situations in different ways” is a kind of crossroads. The story can go two ways: The correct one is to explore why this important difference has come to naught in the public mind; the one that leads over a cliff—the one taken by NBC—is to cite the data and then throw up its hands, as though this statistical result is the enigmatic pronouncement of some ancient oracle. This leads us down the hellbound trail to…

…Biden and his lawyers have argued that they turned over these classified documents — from his time as Barack Obama’s vice president — as soon as they were discovered and have cooperated with investigators, while Trump failed turn over all requested documents and has lashed out at investigators….

It seems almost quaint to point this out, but the circumstances under review do not have their basis in anything Biden’s lawyers “have argued.” They derive from the fact that they are the circumstances that actually happened. Nothing recently has demonstrated the complete inadequacy of journalistic norms and customs to deal with the global threat of the former president* as clearly as the alchemical formula that turns undisputed facts into something that lawyers “have argued.” Democracy dies in nuance, as this NBC poll clearly indicates but dares not say outright.

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And how did we get here? Luckily, Peter Baker of The New York Times inadvertently provided a precise diagnosis the other day:

The cases are markedly different in their particulars, as has been noted repeatedly. Mr. Biden has cooperated with the authorities, inviting them to search his home, while Mr. Trump defied efforts to recover documents even after being subpoenaed, prompting a judge to issue a search warrant. But they are similar enough that as a practical matter Democrats can no longer use the issue against Mr. Trump politically, and investigators may have a harder time prosecuting him criminally.

Baker’s assertion about prosecutions is beneath idiotic. Trump would be prosecuted—assuming he ever is—because he actively conspired to keep from doing everything that the Biden people did, as Baker explains prior to running his argument over his own feet.

Then along comes David Axelrod at 10,000 feet to finish the job.

“I feel it’s likely that when the probe is done, the Biden case will wind up being one of unintended mistakes — carelessness but not willful defiance of the rules or law,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “The Trump case is much different and more serious. But in the court of public opinion, those lines may now be blurred.”

Lines are blurred. Clouds are gathering. Doubts are raised. And American democracy blunders blindly further off down the road to dangerous irrelevance.

Charles P Pierce is the author of four books, most recently Idiot America, and has been a working journalist since 1976. He lives near Boston and has three children. 

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