Several Republican lawmakers saying no to COVID-19 vaccines


Republicans are at odds over the wisdom and efficacy of taking the COVID-19 vaccine, undermining national efforts to defeat the coronavirus and reinforcing the views of GOP base voters already reluctant to participate in the ramped-up inoculation program.

Although the top GOP leaders, including Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), were quickly vaccinated in December — and encouraged the public to follow suit — a number of high-profile rank-and-file members say they intend to ignore the advice. 

Some of those holdouts say they’re concerned the vaccine poses a greater health threat than COVID-19 itself. Others have indicated they don’t want to jump ahead of constituents in line for vaccines of their own. And still others note that, because they contracted COVID-19 over the past year, they have the antibodies to fight the disease in the future, precluding the need to be inoculated. 

“I have not chosen to be vaccinated because I got it naturally and the science of 30 million people — and the statistical validity of a 30 million sample — is pretty overwhelming that natural immunity exists and works,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), an ophthalmologist who contracted the disease last March and does not wear a mask in the Capitol. 

“I had COVID,” echoed Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who tested positive for it in October.

Several other Republicans said that, three months after the vaccine became available to members of Congress, they’re still consulting with their doctors about whether they’ll take it. 

“I'm still looking at it, I'm listening to my doctor,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), another COVID-19 survivor and former health care executive who is the chairman of the Senate GOP campaign arm.

“In Indiana, it had just recently crossed the threshold, so I was also concerned about not jumping in line ahead of anybody,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “But I advise you to get the vaccine, and it looks effective and I intend to."  

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) praised the vaccination effort and said he himself has been vaccinated. But he made clear that vaccinations should in no way be mandated.

“I’m very glad we have a vaccine. … I’m certainly encouraging people to get vaccinated, but I also think it’s a choice for individual Americans to make,” Cruz said Tuesday. 

The hesitancy and muddled messaging arrives as the Biden administration, backed by public health experts, is urging Americans to get a vaccine as soon as they become eligible to do so. The issue, however, has become highly partisan, as a huge swath of Republican voters say they’ll refuse to do so.

A new NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist survey found that, among those who voted for former President Trump in 2020, 47 percent have no plan to be vaccinated, versus 10 percent for Biden voters. For Republican men the figure was even higher — 49 percent say they won’t be inoculated versus 6 percent of Democratic men.

The discrepancy is frustrating Democratic leaders, who are urging Republicans to be more vocal in promoting vaccines, both on and off of Capitol Hill. In an exchange with Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) last week on the House floor, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the chamber could return to normal business more quickly “if every member had been vaccinated.”

Scalise had responded by arguing that the inoculation rate, which currently stands at 75 percent, need not be 100 percent for the House to eliminate emergency public health procedures, such as proxy voting and Zoom committee hearings. 

“We would all want everyone who has the interest in getting the vaccine to have access to the vaccine,” he said. “But if one member out of 435 felt they didn't want to have the vaccine, I would hope that wouldn't be enough to prohibit the rest of us from carrying out more normal functions.” 

The issue has created a huge dilemma for Republicans on Capitol Hill, who are simultaneously hailing Trump as a hero for promoting vaccine development while being careful not to demand that anyone take it. Indeed, Republicans are scrambling to find a balance between supporting freedom of choice, to appease their ideological base, and encouraging vaccinations, to promote the quicker establishment of herd immunity — and a return to normalcy.

“This is our way out. … This is our ticket back to normalcy,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), a former GOP whip.

Yet many GOP leaders have been relatively quiet about the vaccination effort, focused instead on hammering President Biden over the migrant surge at the border. Spokesmen for McCarthy, Scalise and House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney (Wyo.) did not respond to a request for comment. A McConnell spokesman pointed The Hill to comments the GOP leader made last week urging people to take the shot.  

“As soon as I was eligible, I took it. I’ve encouraged everybody in my state to take it; and these shouldn't be partisan issues, either mask wearing or getting the vaccination,” McConnell, a polio survivor, said during an appearance on PBS. “Getting the vaccination is important. I would encourage everyone to do that, without exception. They’re proven safe and necessary if we're going to get this pandemic in the rearview mirror.”

But some Republicans say they want to see their leadership to be even more aggressive in pushing a pro-vaccine message. 

“I hope that leaders of our party from President Trump on down make it real clear that it's a great idea to get a vaccination,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “It's good for one's own health, and it's good for the health of our neighbors.” 

Cornyn, whose state this month lifted its mask mandate and restrictions on businesses, warned that those who forgo the vaccine are playing with fire. In recent months, two Republican lawmakers — a House member and a member-elect — have died from COVID-19.

“I guess there are some folks in certain age groups or of certain world views who think they're bulletproof. But if there is one thing we’ve seen from this virus,” it doesn’t respect people, Cornyn said. “And while you may get lucky and have an asymptomatic case, you also could end up in the hospital or intensive care with a ventilator or worse.”

Pressed on whether GOP leaders have a greater responsibility to promote vaccinations, Cornyn suggested that voters may trust sports figures and other celebrities over politicians. Still, Cornyn, Cruz and a number of other Republicans say Trump could make a significant impact if he publicly encouraged his loyal supporters to get vaccinated.

“I know there are people close to him who are encouraging him” to speak about his experience, Cornyn said. “I think it would be a good idea.” 

Trump and former first lady Melania Trump were both diagnosed with coronavirus in the fall. They privately were vaccinated before Trump left office in January but didn’t acknowledge it publicly until recently. That silence, said some Republicans, is a mistake. 

“I think there’s a lot of people who would pay attention to President Trump,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.).

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