Vaccine Rules Cover Most US Workers; DOJ Sues Texas On Abortion : The NPR Politics Podcast The number of new COVID cases hasn't been this high since before the vaccine was widely available. Aiming to curb the rise, President Biden has announced a series of expansive new policies covering the bulk of American workers.

And the Department of Justice is suing Texas over its near-ban on abortions, launching one of many expected court fights over the law.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, White House correspondent Asma Khalid, business correspondent Andrea Hsu, and national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

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Biden's Vaccine Rule Covers Two-Thirds Of American Workers

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UNIDENTIFIED NPR LISTENER: Ode to NPR. Oh, NPR, my politic muse relied upon for the latest news. As your humble listening champ, I offer you this timestamp. Republican or Democrat, this podcast was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

1:11 p.m. on Friday, September 10.

UNIDENTIFIED NPR LISTENER: So, Tam, Dom, Danielle and Asma, Ayesha, Susan, Don and Mara, Carrie, Kelsey and two Scotts, Ron, Ryan, Miles and whoever I forgot - y'all do you. And this I know - I'll continue to enjoy this show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: I love that.

KEITH: Oh, that was glorious. Yeah, it felt a little like Christmas at the end.

KHALID: Right? You get a gift. You get a gift. It was wonderful. Thank you.

KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

KHALID: And I'm Asma Khalid. I also cover the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My job as president is to protect all Americans. So tonight, I'm announcing that the Department of Labor is developing an emergency rule to require all employers with 100 or more employees that together employ over 80 million workers to insure their workforces are fully vaccinated or show a negative test at least once a week.

KEITH: That, of course, is President Biden speaking yesterday announcing a significant escalation in his effort to get Americans vaccinated by requiring more Americans to get vaccinated. Andrea Hsu of NPR's Business Desk is with us. Hello.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hey there.

KEITH: So let's talk about that. This is a big step going - through OSHA, the agency that is designed to keep American workers safe - and basically requiring vaccination for 80 million Americans. That is huge.

HSU: This is a huge shift, Tam. And, you know, it's really the president responding to what happened to the economy in August as the delta variant took off. You know, we saw job growth slow down dramatically. You know, things are not back to normal as we had hoped. And still, not that many companies were mandating vaccines. I mean, we had some. We saw United Airlines do it, Tyson Foods, Disney, some tech and media companies. But I think that the president felt that we were not getting where we needed to be for the economy to get back on track.

KHALID: You know, I was struck in listening to the president just how different he sounded from his previous pleas to people to get vaccinated. For months and months and months, he has been cajoling people. And it sounded yesterday like the era of persuasion is done.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We've been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us. So please do the right thing.

KHALID: And he is moving on to forced mandates. There's going to be mandates across the board for a variety of workers - federal workers, federal contractors. I mean, to some degree, there is a mandate - we'll talk more about this - even if you work in the private sector. And so to me, that was just a complete shift from where we heard not only the president, but where we had heard this White House. You know, I remember sitting in the briefing room in mid-July and asking the press secretary, Jen Psaki, if there was a mandate for folks who work at the White House to be vaccinated. And she said no. And now we're seeing mandates at a much broader level.

HSU: Yeah, absolutely. You know, there is an economist at the job site indeed.com. She's part of the Indeed Hiring Lab. But she found the number of job postings with vaccination requirements is small, but it was up more than 200% since a month earlier. So there clearly was interest among employers to get their employees vaccinated. They just didn't know how to do it. And I think a lot were reluctant to issue a mandate. I should say the economists also found the number of people searching for jobs that don't require vaccinations was also small, but it was tremendously higher since a month ago, and most of those searches were in health care jobs.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, I think increasingly the administration is trying to make it harder for people to avoid getting vaccinated. And one area where that - as you mentioned, health care workers searching for jobs where you don't have to be vaccinated. It's going to be really hard really soon to find a job in health care where you don't have to be vaccinated because one of the other things that was announced as part of this is that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, they provide funding and reimbursements to basically every medical provider in America. They are requiring vaccination, COVID vaccination.

HSU: Yeah, I think the president said something yesterday like if you go to the hospital, you want to be sure that the person caring for you is vaccinated. And so he's, you know, taking the step to make that happen.

KEITH: Also, one thing I was thinking about is that it seemed for a while that the White House was out of options or sort of out of the ability to surprise us with new policy because they had seemed so unwilling to really go further in mandates or vaccine verification or some of these things. And yet this announcement yesterday surprised a lot of people that - and pleased certainly public health people.

KHALID: You know, Tam, I think what is noteworthy about this is just how sweeping it is. The White House estimates that all told, you know, in terms of their private sector part of this plan, it will affect about two-thirds of workers. I mean, this just a giant chunk of the economy. And then you include on top of this - right? - all of the federal workers, the federal contractors.

But to your point, Tam, I mean, there was certainly a reluctance that you heard from the White House to engage in conversations and questions about mandates. And now we are seeing these across the board. And, you know, it seems to be just a clear sense from this White House that not putting forth mandates and through gentle encouragement has not been sufficient. And part of this is undoubtedly, though, a political calculation that the president is going to not be able to persuade a chunk of the population. And so forget trying to persuade them. Just try to beat COVID. And the way to do that is by increasing mandates.

KEITH: Yeah, and 19% of adults in our latest poll said that they weren't planning to get vaccinated. But if it becomes a job requirement, that could change the calculation for some people. One thing I want to talk about, Andrea, is how employers are receiving this. I think it's sort of a mixed bag. I was talking to Brett Coburn, who is a labor and employment lawyer in Atlanta, and he said that this is a big move, this OSHA rule that is expected to come.

HSU: Yeah. Yeah.

KEITH: But also that, you know, quietly, it may not be that unwelcome.

BRETT COBURN: I'm sure there will be a lot of employers who chafe at this for a variety of reasons, but some employers, I think, may welcome it, right? Because it kind of takes it out of their hands to some extent to say, sorry, OSHA said we have to do this. And we have to follow what OSHA tells us. The CDC gives us guidelines. OSHA gives us rules, right? And that's a really important distinction.

HSU: Yeah, I think that's a really good point that he makes. You know, we saw companies really going to great lengths to get their employees vaccinated. Delta Airlines did not follow United Airlines' lead in mandating a vaccine, but they did tell employees, look, if you don't get vaccinated, we're going to charge you $200 extra per month for your health care starting November 1. I also went to Dr. Bronner's soap company. Do you know the hippie soap company out in California? I talked to their CEO, David Bronner. You know, he's a guy who wears a tie dye T-shirts and has a ponytail. He was offering $1,000 bonuses to his staff for getting vaccinated. And he thought he'd get to a very high rate of vaccination with that. But he knows he has on his staff a few people who are really into their anti-vax views, as he told me. And he wanted to respect that. Here's what he said.

DAVID BRONNER: You know, if you really, really, really believe it to the extent that you're going to not, you know, take the thousand, then, you know, we'll respect it. And we don't want to like, you know, create bad vibes and ill will around here. And we figured that was the better path.

HSU: But, you know, now he doesn't actually have to worry about the bad vibes because he can say, you know what? The White House is telling me we have to make a mandate.

KEITH: Yeah. You know, I think that there may be a difference between big businesses and smaller businesses or there likely will be some more conservative-leaning businesses that I could think of that will ultimately want to challenge this, one employer who says that they are suing to try to stop it is the GOP, the Republican National Committee. They are an employer of more than 100 people and they're fighting it. And Republican lawmakers, certainly, you know, the term authoritarian is being thrown down a lot in reference to this move, that this, you know, this takes it from persuasion to mandates. And it's not being well received in Republican circles. But frankly, I don't know what President Biden does that is well received in those circles.

KHALID: So really, what power do some Republicans have to essentially block this from going into effect?

HSU: Well, they can challenge this in court. So what Biden is doing, he's asked OSHA, you know, the federal agency that's in charge of workplace safety to issue an emergency rule. The technical term is emergency temporary standard. And once it's issued, it takes effect immediately. But it can be challenged. And it's actually sort of on the books for six months. And in that six months, they have to go through the normal rulemaking process to make it permanent, and that is hugely onerous. But in the meantime, it can be challenged.

And, you know, labor experts say they do expect there will be challenges. But in issuing this, they also have to lay out a justification for this rule. They have to present that there is a grave danger that workers face in the workplace. So for sure, they will lay out the justification explaining the threat of COVID, the rates of infection, the deaths and all of that. And they will make a case to say, you know, OSHA wants to be sure that workers are not exposed to this deadly virus from their co-workers on the job.

KEITH: Yeah. And we should just say that we haven't seen this regulation yet because it is going to be written. So the timeline on this is, you know, is weeks, maybe months. All right. We are going to leave it there for now. Andrea Hsu, thank you for joining us.

HSU: Thanks for having me.

KEITH: And after a quick break, Carrie Johnson joins the pod to talk about the Department of Justice lawsuit against Texas over the state's near ban on abortion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEITH: And we're back. And we have a new friend who's an old friend, Carrie Johnson. Hello.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Hello.

KEITH: So you have news. You have been busy covering the attorney general, who has also been busy - Attorney General Merrick Garland. He held a press conference yesterday announcing that the Department of Justice is suing the State of Texas over a law that bans abortion after about six weeks. That's a point at which most people don't even know they're pregnant.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MERRICK GARLAND: The obvious and expressly acknowledged intention of this statutory scheme is to prevent women from exercising their constitutional rights by thwarting judicial review for as long as possible. Thus far, the law has had its intended effect.

KEITH: It was basically designed to avoid legal challenges. So tell me about this case and how he's approaching it.

JOHNSON: Yeah. The attorney general basically says that Texas is defying the Constitution, that decades, almost 50 years of Supreme Court precedent have upheld a person's right to an abortion. And so Texas is just basically flouting precedent and flouting the Constitution, he says. And moreover, this specific law has no exceptions for rape or incest. And it basically takes enforcement of all of this out of the hands of the state of Texas and puts it in the hands of what Merrick Garland calls bounty hunters, that any old body in Texas can call and file a lawsuit against somebody they think is helping a person get an abortion after six weeks. And that could include doctors, nurses, Uber and Lyft drivers who might drive a woman to a facility and any number of other people.

Merrick Garland says that that tramples on supremacy of federal law, and it might even put some federal workers in jeopardy because, for instance, like at the Bureau of Prisons or something, if a person wants an abortion who's incarcerated, the GOP has to abide by that person's wishes. And if it does, in Texas, some of those corrections officers could be subjected to this law. So the Justice Department wants a permanent injunction. It wants a judge to block enforcement of this law. And it wants to make sure that no other state goes in this direction, either.

KHALID: Carrie, one question I have for you is that there is kind of this general assumption - maybe it's accurate or not - that the Supreme Court is the final law of the land. And we saw the Supreme Court choose not to act and choose not to block this Texas law. So I guess I'm left really befuddled by who has the greater power in this dynamic. Is it the Department of Justice? Is it the Supreme Court? And what happens now?

JOHNSON: Well, that's a really good question. And the final word is going to come most likely from the Supreme Court. What the Supreme Court did last week was, by a 5-4 vote, refused to block the law for now. But the majority basically said that they weren't getting to the heart of the constitutional issues. And it basically seemed to suggest that somebody who had been sued would probably be the best kind of case to bring to the court. So we don't know exactly what they'll do when this law gets to them on the full merits. But for right now, the Justice Department says that this Texas law, which has been in effect, has basically all but halted abortions for most people in the state of Texas. And that just can't be right, Merrick Garland says, because it's depriving women - millions of women, potentially - of their constitutional rights there. So while this case may get to the Supreme Court eventually, it could take a little while. And until that time, if no lower court judges intervene, clinics that provide abortions and other services may be too scared to do much because they could be targeted under the law.

KEITH: So how has the state of Texas responded to this announcement from the attorney general?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Governor Greg Abbott, through a spokeswoman, has said that he - they're confident that the courts will side with the state of Texas here. And Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, another Republican, tweeted that the Biden administration should be spending more time on Afghanistan and other problems rather than meddling in the rights of Texas residents. He's making a states rights issue here. But the Texas Democratic Party and many abortion providers in the state have said this Justice Department lawsuit is very welcome. In fact, one abortion rights supporter, Nancy Northup, says it could be a game-changer for them.

KEITH: So I know that we're focused here on Texas specifically. And it is a big state. And this is a big deal. But could this have implications beyond Texas? Is that part of why the Justice Department is getting involved?

JOHNSON: That's absolutely a huge factor in the Justice Department analysis here. How do I know that? Because the attorney general said so in his news conference. Here's what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

JOHNSON: This kind of scheme to nullify the Constitution of the United States is one that all Americans, whatever their politics or party, should fear. If it prevails, it may become a model for action in other areas by other states and with respect to other constitutional rights and judicial precedents.

JOHNSON: So what Merrick Garland is referring to there is that several other GOP-led states have talked about wanting to adopt their own versions of this Texas abortion law. And Garland and other people who have studied law and followed politics for many years are now warning that other states could adopt a similar version of the law but take it out of the context of abortion, put it into the context of, say, gun rights or some other constitutional right, and empower what they call bounty hunters to go bring lawsuits against their neighbors, people they maybe don't even know. And that could really pose some significant problems for the legal system and for the country at large.

KHALID: So, Carrie, how soon would we know what effect this Department of Justice action has in what's going on in Texas?

JOHNSON: Well, the case has been assigned to a federal judge in Austin, Texas, but nobody thinks that that's going to be the end of the matter. I think one side or the other, depending on what that District Court judge does, will appeal to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is dominated by conservatives. In fact, many, many judges appointed by President Trump on that bench. And then eventually it's going to make its way to the Supreme Court. And so it could be a while. It really could be a while until we know the final outcome here.

KEITH: All right. We're going to take a quick break. And then when we get back, it's time for Can't Let It Go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEITH: And we're back. And it's time to end the show like we do every week with Can't Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we just can't stop talking about, politics or otherwise. Asma, why can't you let go of?

KHALID: Oh, so what I cannot let go of is - or who I cannot let go of is Leylah Fernandez. I don't know if y'all have been watching much of the U.S. Open or paying attention to this. But Leylah is - I believe she's only 19 years old. And she is Canadian. Shout out to the Canadians. She is unranked right now in the tennis world. I believe she is - she might be like 73rd or something, so she's really low ranked. Long story short, she is going to be in the U.S. Open finals on Saturday. And to me, she just has a phenomenal, phenomenal story.

I went down this kind of rabbit hole of researching who she was because I just - I'm always in awe. I played a lot of tennis all throughout high school and even some in college. And I'm always intrigued by like, who are these tennis phenom who are 19 years old able to make it to championship finals? And I will say, at first, I was floored that she's Canadian because no knock at the Canadians, but I was like, it's so cold up there. Like, when can you even really play tennis?

KEITH: In a bubble.

KHALID: In a bubble (laughter). But I think what's really interesting, I came across this beautiful interview that her dad did where, you know, he was talking about - he was asked, essentially, how does it feel to have your daughter represent Canada?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: How would you describe what it means to the Fernandez family to represent Canada?

JORGE FERNANDEZ: Oh, my God. It means everything.

KHALID: It's a beautiful interview where he basically, you know, nearly breaks down into tears and says that we are an immigrant family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FERNANDEZ: You know, there's a lot of talk in the news about, you know, immigrant people. And I understand nationalist sentiments. And I understand how we need to protect them. We only have so many resources. I understand all of that. And I don't want to get political. That's not what I'm doing. What I'm telling you is that we're an immigrant family and we had nothing, (unintelligible). So Canada opened up its doors. And if they wouldn't have done what they did, I wouldn't have had the opportunities that I have. And I wouldn't have been able to give that to my daughter. And so it means a lot.

KHALID: She is just, like, an amazing all-star who has been, like, getting attention from all sorts of folks like Magic Johnson, who tweeted about her, her tennis game is beautiful. It is always exciting to see, like, young teenagers make it to the finals. Also makes me feel like, whoa, their tennis is, like, amazing - whenever I see, like, teen athletes in any sport, I'm like, I am old (laughter).

KEITH: Well, isn't there a lesson that we all sort of peaked in our late teens and early 20s?

KHALID: From - what - our athletic prowess?

JOHNSON: Oh, God, no.

KEITH: I mean, my physical and intellectual acumen, I think, peaked in my late teens or early 20s.

KHALID: Carrie, you disagree. You're still on the up and up?

JOHNSON: I don't know. I still think of myself as around 27, even though I am not. So I disagree with the late teens.

KEITH: Forever 21.

JOHNSON: Yeah, right. Right. Yeah.

KEITH: Carrie, why can't you let go of?

JOHNSON: So what I can't let go of is an essay by John Dickerson, a journalist who published this essay in The Atlantic magazine. And the headline is "Every Dog Is A Rescue Dog." And it's really a beautiful tribute to his pup, George, and the idea of walking your dog. John Dickerson says, in a life of busyness and ambushes on our attention, dog walks air out the brain. They're our regimen of escape and pause. They enlarge our sympathies and sweeten our disposition. And I can tell you that during this pandemic, when it's now been over two years since I have seen either of you in person, it's really good to have a mid-day break to get out, get some fresh air, say hi to the neighbors from afar and be led around by my little pup. It's - this Dickerson's story will make you smile. It may make you cry. It left me in tears this morning, but beautiful tears.

KEITH: It is on my list to read, but I am not ready to cry today, not yet.

KHALID: Carrie, can I ask, did you go out - I mean, you had to take the pup out - right? - like, all during the pandemic. So when you go out and when you were out during the pandemic, I guess, was it one of those moments where you actually did see a lot of other people out and about walking their dogs? And do you talk to folks like that?

JOHNSON: Yeah. In the neighborhood, you know, there's just - in my neighborhood, there are a lot of people out on the street all the time. And if you have a pup in certain kinds of neighborhoods, you'll know. You meet friends. You may not know the people's names, but you know the dog's name.

KEITH: It is so true.

JOHNSON: And so you wind up having the most lovely conversations. And in a time when I can't have conversations with you both by the water cooler anymore or by that sharing table where we always used to eat sweet treats, like, I have these conversations with my neighbors, my fellow dog neighbors. And it's really just a lovely pause to the day, to the workday?

KEITH: Well, I am going to keep the animal theme going. I am here to tell you about a duck named Ripper. This duck does have a name. He is an Australian musk duck. Let me just say he's kind of funny looking.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: But that's not all. He also speaks.

JOHNSON: What?

KEITH: He says - he - this duck, according to a CNN article, which is based on a study, so, like, a real scientific study, this duck Ripper says, you bloody fool.

JOHNSON: Oh, my gosh.

KHALID: Wait. The duck talks?

KEITH: Yeah. Well, you know, he was hand-reared by somebody who probably says you bloody fool all the time.

KHALID: I didn't know that ducks could do that, though. I thought it was, like, only a parrot skill to mimic.

KEITH: Yes, exactly. Maybe ducks or maybe just this one duck is...

KHALID: Is like a genius duck.

JOHNSON: Special. He's special.

KEITH: ...More sophisticated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RIPPER: You bloody fool.

KEITH: You bloody fool.

JOHNSON: Is that for real?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RIPPER: You bloody fool.

JOHNSON: That is crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RIPPER: You bloody fool.

KHALID: A part of me feels like we're getting duped.

JOHNSON: Me, too.

KHALID: And there's, like, some teenager who's totally just, like, dubbed over this.

KEITH: It was published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Science Biological - wait. No. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences - not JAMA. Not a journal I've ever heard of. Not Nature. But whatever.

JOHNSON: Well, too good to check?

KEITH: Way too good to check, you bloody fool.

JOHNSON: (Laughter) Hey.

KEITH: (Laughter) All right. That is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Materi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Elena Moore. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl and Brandon Carter. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

KHALID: I'm Asma Khalid. I also cover the White House.

JOHNSON: And I'm Carrie Johnson. And I cover the Justice Department.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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