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The GOP struggles with what to do on employer vaccine mandates.

President Biden touted the Food and Drug Administration's full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine on Aug. 23. (The Washington Post)

Across the border in South Dakota is perhaps the prime example of how contentious this could become, now that such mandates are on firmer legal footing with the FDA’s decision.

Amid a push by some state legislators for a special session on such a bill, Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) has come out against it. Last week, she suggested such a bill might be a slippery slope toward excessive government regulation of business. Then, amid pushback, she came out even more strongly against it Tuesday.

In an Instagram post, Noem laid out a detailed case against the bill, calling the proposal “not conservative” and “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” She also accused the GOP legislators behind it of “chasing headlines.”

President Biden this week responded to the Food and Drug Administration’s full authorisation of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine by calling on employers around the country to mandate it for their employees — which it seems many will. And Republicans as a party don’t seem to know what to do with that.

In the days since the FDA’s authorization and Biden’s call, Republicans who have otherwise fought tooth and nail against vaccine mandates have been surprisingly quiet about the prospect of employer mandates. And the few who have spoken out have generally said employers should be allowed to implement them.

The issue has played out in recent weeks and months in a number of states, with some lawmakers pushing for bans on mandates. But unlike the party’s posture toward school mask mandates, government vaccine mandates and vaccine passports, there is little cohesion on this subject. So far, only one state bans employer vaccine mandates: Montana.

Noem’s opposition is notable in that she is considered a potential GOP presidential candidate moving forward. Other Republicans in that conversation, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have focused extensively on appealing to conservative critics of vaccine and mask mandates. He and others have also proved rather amenable to getting the government involved in such business issues, including when he and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) moved to ban cruise lines from requiring proof of vaccination from customers.

To the extent that lawmakers pushing to regulate business decisions on vaccines is “chasing headlines,” plenty of Noem’s would-be 2024 opponents, it seems, have indeed done just that.

Noem, of course, made pains in her video to assure mandate critics that she’s still on their side. She urged businesses not to take this step and warned about the free-market consequences of it (such as losing employees). She also pledged to fight any federal government mandates.

But the big news is that she essentially said conservatives should give businesses the freedom to take this step. And that’s going to be a tough pill to swallow for a Republican base that has been spoon-fed anti-mandate rhetoric — often tinged with conspiracy theories — by its leaders for so long.

Like Noem, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) has spoken out against a similar bill in his state, calling it a “mistake.” But its supporters held a hearing on the subject Tuesday, and hundreds of demonstrators turned out to support it. This is the same bill, as it happens, for which Ohio Republicans in June invited the testimony of Sherri Tenpenny, an anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist. Tenpenny went viral for falsely claiming at the hearing that the vaccines leave people “magnetized.”

The Michigan Republican Party also held a hearing on the topic last week, complete with Tenpenny’s fellow conspiracy theorists as witnesses. Like in Ohio, the bill stands virtually no chance of being signed into law, given Michigan has a Democratic governor. But the Detroit Free Press reported “it is expected to pass if it comes up for a vote in the future.” A similar bill has also moved forward in Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled state legislature, despite a Democratic governor again standing in the way.

Other states, besides Montana, have laws on the books that have some impact here but stop short of full employer vaccine mandate bans. After New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) signed a bill limiting vaccine mandates in certain circumstances last month, his office emphasized, “As he has long said, Gov. Sununu believes that private entities have the choice to require vaccinations.” Similarly, one of the few prominent Republicans to weigh in on the issue this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said Monday that businesses and school boards should be allowed to mandate vaccines.

Yet again in the GOP, there is tension between some of these figures and their more ambitious and extreme counterparts. Those Republicans have jumped onboard with the bans on vaccine and school mask mandates that the GOP base loves, even though those mandates are broadly popular with the American people. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) recently proposed a bill banning all vaccine mandates. “My legislation also provides civil rights protections for employees from their employers, to stop discrimination based on vaccination status,” Cruz said.

But that wing of the party has been rather quiet about the prospect of employer mandates this week, even as those mandates are now more legitimately beginning to appear over the horizon for many Americans. And more so than perhaps any previous issue of coronavirus mitigation, this one casts a spotlight on precisely what the Trump-era Republican Party’s definition of “conservative” really is.

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