White House defends vaccine rule against Kelly’s criticism

The White House pushed back Monday on Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly after the vulnerable Democrat broke with President Joe Biden’s vaccine and testing requirement for private employers.

As Republican attorneys generals launch a wave of legal challenges to the federal rule, Kelly emerged last week as the most prominent Democratic critic of the policy. It requires companies of more than 100 employees to ensure full vaccination of their workers or require regular testing for COVID-19.

Kelly said last week that she “doesn’t believe this directive is the correct, or the most effective, solution for Kansas,” and promised to take unspecified action against the federal rule. On the same day, her likely 2022 Republican opponent, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, joined a lawsuit against it.

The White House shrugged off Kelly’s criticism when asked whether the Democratic governor was undermining the administration’s message at a time it faces GOP lawsuits.

“This is this thing that we repeat all the time. We know that vaccine requirements work, and we’re going to continue to push that we’re going to make sure that we get as many people vaccinated,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday when asked about Kelly’s opposition.

“It is so important to get this pandemic behind us and to get the economy going,” Jean-Pierre said. “And so that’s, I mean, that’s going to continue to be our message is to tell anyone that we’re working with, whether it’s a Democrat or Republican, that this is how we have to move forward to make sure that we get out of the situation that we’re in to get out of this pandemic.”

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy echoed this argument later Monday in a brief interview with McClatchy when asked about Kelly’s criticism, saying the policy will accelerate the country out of the pandemic.

“From a public health perspective, we know these requirements are very effective at increasing vaccination rates. We know they’re historically measures we’ve used in the country to protect people from other illnesses like measles and polio,” Murthy said.

“I don’t ever question people’s motives, but what I’m sharing with you is my perspective from a public health vantage point, which is that our goal I know is to get through this pandemic as quickly as we can,” Murthy said when asked if he thought critics of the policy were politically-motivated.

The conservative-leaning U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued an order Saturday pausing implementation of the rule in response to a lawsuit led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxtonth, the Republican who led the unsuccessful effort to overturn the 2020 election. Kansas and Missouri have joined separate lawsuits contesting the same rule.

Kelly’s office did not immediately respond to questions Monday about Jean-Pierre’s comments or whether she supports Kansas’ participation in the lawsuit against the rule, which was officially issued last week by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Republicans have attacked Kelly’s opposition to the rule as hollow posturing ahead of a tough 2022 re-election fight. “Kansans deserve more than just words,” the Republican Governors Association said Monday, calling on Kelly to officially support Schmidt’s lawsuit.

Despite Saturday’s order, Jean-Pierre expressed confidence Monday that the Biden administration will ultimately prevail in court against the GOP-led lawsuits.

“The administration clearly has the authority to protect workers and actions announced by the president are just designed to save lives and stop the spread of COVID-19. And as the DOJ (Department of Justice) said, they will be defending these lawsuits,” she said.

Jean-Pierre said employers should not wait for the court cases to be resolved before implementing the vaccine and testing requirements for their workers.

“Do not wait to take action that will keep your workplace safe. It is important and critical to do and waiting to get more people vaccinated will lead to more outbreaks,” she said.

This story was originally published November 8, 2021 2:55 PM.

Bryan Lowry is a White House correspondent at McClatchy. He previously covered Congress for The Kansas City Star. He also reported on state politics in Missouri and Kansas for The Star and The Wichita Eagle, contributing to The Star’s 2017 project on state government secrecy in Kansas that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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