Senate Republicans divided over COVID-19 special session
CHARLESTON — An effort to show a united front among Republican members of the West Virginia Senate ended up showing more fractures among the caucus over the need for a special session to block potential COVID-19 mandates.
Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, held a press conference in front of the Senate Chamber on Tuesday with several Republican caucus members to address the concerns of members of the public who want lawmakers to act to prevent private vaccine mandates, mask mandates, and other COVID-19 mitigation options.
“I’ve been in the legislature for 20 years, and I’ve never ran across an issue where I’ve not been able to make a decision almost like that, especially as the facts come in,” Blair said. “Now, one of the interesting parts about this is the facts — I call them variables — change on a daily basis. It makes it very difficult to be able to manage that.”
Blair said there was not enough support in the Senate Republican Caucus to call themselves into special session to consider any kind of ban on private businesses requiring employees to be vaccinated or ban public and private mask mandates. The state Constitution requires three-fifths of members in both the House and Senate to call themselves into special session — 60 members of the House and 21 members of the Senate.
“At this point in time, we do not have the ability to call ourselves in,” Blair said. “Everything I’ve seen so far, we have not been able to get to that and keep in mind, our caucuses are made up of all walks of life. And so there’s a lot of different perspectives.”
State Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said there also isn’t enough support in the 23-member Republican caucus to get to the 18 votes needed to pass legislation in the 34-member body dealing with specific COVID-19 issues. Work continues to craft legislation that a simple majority of the Senate can support.
“We have been, as a group, negotiating this where a position could be … within the Senate for a good while now,” Tarr said. “It’s been weeks upon weeks on where we should be with regards to any vaccine that comes out and what laws and regulations should be around that vaccine.”
Tarr said Senate Republicans are also negotiating with Republicans in the House of Delegates and the office of Gov. Jim Justice on possible legislation for a future special session or the next general session in 2022. Issues include the legalities of vaccine passports or proof of vaccination by private entities and policies regarding vaccines. But Tarr acknowledged there are differences of opinion between the two chambers and the two branches of government.
“Those negotiations are at times fragile because they’re on the cusp of being able to get something done, and sometimes it steps back away from it,” Tarr said. “In that light, we have been trying to keep these negotiations as going forward as much as possible.”
While not all Senate Republicans agreed about the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines despite overwhelming evidence that vaccines protect against severe symptoms, hospitalizations, and death, many agreed that vaccines should be a choice either by individuals or by private businesses.
The starkest differences were between Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, and state Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood. While Takubo believes that vaccination should be a choice and not a mandate, he strongly supports vaccination. Azinger, on the other hand, is completely against vaccine requirements even at the private sector-level.
“Obviously I’m a strong advocate,” said Takubo, a respiratory doctor who spoke on Monday’s COVID-19 briefing with Justice. “I think as many people as possible should get vaccinated. I believe the vaccinations are working and they’re saving lives, but I’m also a firm believer that people should have the choice for themselves what they should and should not do.”
“There are several of us in the caucus that believe … that the government or private business doesn’t have a right to tell an individual, an employee, to put a vaccine in their body that this many people are fearful of,” said Azinger, who supports a special session. “With all due respect to (Blair) here … But there are some of us that feel very strongly about that issue.”
All appeared to agree in their opposition to new requirements by President Joe Biden to require vaccines for federal employees and contractors, as well as private businesses with more than 100 employees. Blair called for Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to either file suit to block Biden’s mandates or to join other lawsuits being considered by other states.
“If we don’t do this now, we will have loud precedents to be set way into the future on many, many other issues,” Blair said. “The federal government has went way too far in putting these mandates out.”
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