Mar 22, 2022 - Health

Vulnerable Democrats eye GOP transit mask repeal

Illustration of a mask with a donkey's hoof print on it.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The chair of the House Democrats' campaign arm and some of the vulnerable members he's charged with re-electing are voicing support for a Republican-led mask mandate repeal bill.

Why it matters: This would set up a potential showdown with the White House, which recently issued a one-month extension on the federal mask mandate for public transit and airplanes.

  • The backing also illustrates how Democrats — especially those facing tough re-election fights — are trying to distance themselves from the pro-mask policies that defined their party for the past two years.
  • "I'm completely over mask mandates," Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told Axios. "I don't think they make any sense anymore. I'm for whatever gets rid of mask mandates as quickly as possible."
  • "I think you're safer on an airplane than you are in a restaurant or at the gym, so I don't know why we're wearing masks in the air."
  • Some medical experts say masking on public transit still helps reduce community transmission, especially at international crossroads like airports, Axios' Erin Doherty reported.

Driving the news: The Senate voted 57-40 last week to pass a resolution to nullify the Biden administration's public transit mask mandate after it was extended until April 18.

  • Eight Democrats voted for the resolution, including Sens. Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) — some of the most vulnerable incumbents this midterm cycle.
  • The others were Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), mostly centrists facing re-election in 2024.
  • Asked if the House will vote on the mask resolution, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, demurred. "I don't know the answer to that," he said.

Between the lines: While the Senate is often a graveyard for liberal legislation, the same could be said of the House on measures rolling back pandemic restrictions.

  • A resolution to overturn a vaccine mandate on private businesses that passed the Senate in December with support from Manchin and Tester is currently languishing in the House.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office did not respond to questions about whether either resolution will be voted on.

What they're saying: In the House, some vulnerable lawmakers support the bill or think the Senate bill should get a fair look in the House.

  • "I would vote for that," Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) told Axios. She argued that localities and airlines "can make that decision for themselves."
  • "If, based on science, [airplanes are] just as safe as anywhere else, then we should be considering it," said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.).
  • "People are ready and are armed with the information they need to protect themselves," said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). "I think we ought to consider it, the question is: when?"

The other side: But other Democrats are leery of legislating on COVID-19 health precautions, after preaching for two years to follow science and with a new variant spreading through Europe.

  • "Eight of my colleagues came down with COVID in the last few days — it's still around," Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) told Axios.
  • "I think the House should stay out of issues of science, generally speaking," he said.
  • "I think it should be based on what the CDC says," said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last cycle.

Reality check: The White House has threatened to veto the resolution, and there's nowhere near the level of support in either chamber for a veto override.

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