Biden's decision to require millions of federal workers
President Joe Biden on Thursday urged local governments to pay people to get vaccinated against Covid-19, and set new rules requiring federal workers to provide proof of vaccination or face regular testing, mask mandates and travel restrictions.
The measures are Biden's latest attempt to spur reluctant Americans to get vaccinated as the Delta variant of the coronavirus surges nationwide, infecting unvaccinated people in particular.
The United States lags other developed countries in vaccination rates, despite having plenty of free vaccines on hand. White House efforts to urge the hesitant to get vaccinated have hit a wall of anti-vaccine sentiment, misinformation, and political division.
Biden's decision to require millions of federal workers and contractors to show proof of vaccination is a departure from a previous opposition to so-called vaccine passports. It shows the White House taking a tougher stance towards circumstances within Biden's control as the virus spreads.
"Right now too many people are dying or watching someone they love," dying, Biden told reporters at the White House.
"With freedom comes responsibility. So please exercise responsible judgment. Get vaccinated for yourself, the people you love, for your country."
Tune in as I deliver remarks on the next steps in our effort to get more Americans vaccinated and combat the spread of the Delta variant. https://t.co/WwFw2nT72p
— President Biden (@POTUS) July 29, 2021
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 163.8 million people in the United States are fully vaccinated out of a population of some 330 million.
The federal government is the largest employer in the United States and Biden's move could serve as an example for private businesses and other institutions to follow as they assess getting workers back into offices and work places.
Government employees who do not show they have been vaccinated will be subject to weekly or twice-weekly COVID-19 tests and restrictions on official travel.
The United States has about 2.18 million civilian employees and 570,000 other U.S. Postal Service (USPS) workers, according to 2020 data. The U.S. government employed 3.7 million contract employees as of 2017, a New York University study found. Postal workers are not affected by the new rules.
Biden also directed the Defense Department to look into "how and when" it will require members of the military to take the vaccine.
Meanwhile state, local and U.S. territorial governments will be able to dip into $350 billion in coronavirus aid to provide $100 payments for every newly vaccinated American to boost COVID-19 inoculation rates, the U.S. Treasury Department said.
"I know that paying people to get vaccinated might sound unfair to folks who have gotten vaccinated already. But here's the deal: if incentives help us beat this virus, I believe we should use them," Biden said.
Biden's pandemic strategy is coming under scrutiny as the Delta variant spreads and many Americans resist taking the vaccine. Growing outbreaks could have an impact on the strong economic recovery; the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 6.5 percent, the government said on Thursday.
Another issue is how the surge in infections affects efforts to get children back into schools in the fall.
"We can and we must open schools this fall, full time," Biden said. "We can't afford another year out of the classroom."
Biden pressed school districts to hold at least one "pop-up vaccination clinic" in the coming weeks to get children aged 12 and older vaccinated.
The White House also said small- and medium-sized businesses will be reimbursed for offering their workers paid time off to get children and other family members vaccinated.
The National Treasury Employees Union, which has 150,000 federal employees in 34 departments and agencies, said it encouraged its members to get vaccinated but had questions about how the new rules Biden laid out would be implemented.
"We will work to ensure employees are treated fairly and this protocol does not create an undue burden on them," the union's president, Tony Reardon, said in a statement.
The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which has 90,000 members including some 30,000 NASA engineers and other skilled federal workers, said it supported a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal workers.
"We don’t want any more of our members dying," the union's president, Paul Shearon, said in a statement.
Tunisian President Kais Saied said on Wednesday that "wrong economic choices" had caused major financial problems in his first comments on the economy since using emergency powers to seize control of government late on Sunday.
In a meeting with the head of the UTICA business union shown in a video distributed by the presidency, Saied indicated a coming crackdown on corruption cases but said there was "no intention to harm or abuse" business people.
He said 460 people had stolen 13.5 billion dinars ($4.8bln) from Tunisia and offered a "penal settlement" if they returned the money.
"I propose a penal reconciliation with businessmen involved in looting the people's money and tax evasion in exchange for their commitment to projects ... instead of being prosecuted and imprisoned," said Saied, a former law professor who came to office in 2019 campaigning against corruption and an entrenched political elite.
Saied did not elaborate on his proposal.
When he seized government powers on Sunday, a move denounced by opponents as a coup, he also said he would take over public prosecutions and removed immunity from members of parliament.
Economic stagnation, with successive governments pulled between the competing demands of foreign lenders and a powerful labour union, has contributed to growing public anger before Saied's move on Sunday.
In his meeting with UTICA head Samir Majoul the president also called on traders to reduce prices and warned them not to hoard goods or speculate, saying violations would be prosecuted.
After his declaration, Tunisian bond prices fell sharply on Monday.
A roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure investment bill advanced in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, passing a key milestone that moves the emerging legislation toward formal debate and possible passage.
The Senate voted 67-32 to take the first procedural step toward debating the measure that has the support of Democratic President Joe Biden.
The bipartisan agreement, which follows months of negotiations, gained the support of all 48 Democrats, two independents and 17 Republicans on this first procedural vote.
Additional procedural votes and debate on the bill itself were expected, possibly into the weekend or beyond.
Democrats intend the bill -- which includes funding for roads, bridges, broadband and other physical infrastructure -- to be the first of a pair of packages, followed by a sweeping $3.5 trillion "human infrastructure" package that faces staunch Republican opposition and some dissent among moderate Democrats.
Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Senator Rob Portman, the two lead Senate negotiators, announced Wednesday's agreement separately to reporters.
Republicans blocked a similar move last week, saying details were not nailed down. In the latest bill, details on transit and broadband were still being finalised but lawmakers said legislative text would be completed soon.
"We're excited to have a deal," Sinema said. "We've got most of the text done, so we'll be releasing it and then we'll update it as we get those last pieces finalized."
The agreement includes $110 billion for roads, $73 billion for power grid spending, $66 billion for railways, $65 billion to expand broadband access, $55 billion for clean drinking water, $50 billion for environmental resiliency, $39 billion for public transit and $25 billion for airports, the White House said.
Addressing a concern over funding among Republican lawmakers including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Portman said the package is "more than paid for" and added: "We look forward to moving ahead and having a healthy debate."
Officials said the package would be financed through a combination of measures. The largest was redirecting $205 billion in COVID-19 relief funds. Another was recouping $50 billion in fraudulently paid unemployment benefits during the pandemic and getting states to return unused federal unemployment funds, raising another $50 billion.
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said he was investigating whether COVID-19 spending on hospital and nursing home providers is being tapped, with hospital admissions from the highly contagious Delta variant on the rise. "I'm gathering facts," he said.
The bipartisan bill is a key component of Biden's larger domestic policy agenda. Democratic leaders plan to move ahead with a sweeping $3.5 trillion budget "reconciliation" package. Republicans have vowed to oppose that effort, and Sinema appeared lukewarm about it in remarks to the Arizona Republic newspaper in her state on Wednesday.
The bipartisan bill will propose $550 billion in new spending, a White House fact sheet said, down from $579 billion in a framework the negotiators sketched out several weeks ago.