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Capital City Sunday: GOP brings back controversial COVID items, President Biden’s first week

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Republican state lawmakers are set to vote on a series of measures previously removed from a COVID relief package that, itself, remains in limbo.

While Senate Republicans and Democratic Governor Tony Evers agreed on a deal two weeks ago, Assembly GOP leaders said they were cut out of the talks, leaving the bill in jeopardy.

Assembly Republicans said they will take up the compromise bill this week to add some of the items they believe are essential. It is unclear whether those items would cause Evers to veto the package.

In the meantime, the Senate will vote on bills consisting of measures its Republican members removed from the relief bill.

One bill would ban employers from requiring their workers to get vaccinated. Another would require local school boards to get a two-thirds majority vote in order to move classes to all-virtual settings; even then, such measures would need to be re-approved every two weeks. Another bill would prohibit local health officials from closing places of worship.

"Going forward, if these closures are gonna go on for months and months and months, where they affect a person's business or a parent's ability to go to work because their kids aren't in school, at that point, I think it's helpful to have the local government be able to step in and have an extra set of eyes on there," said Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin).

Democratic lawmakers criticized the proposals, saying it will only further delay the passage of legislation Evers would agree to sign. It has been more than nine months since the Republican-majority legislature has passed a bill.

"My Republican colleagues, for most of the summer, didn't bring us into session so we could actually be talking about how it is we invest in contact tracing, what steps we could take to plan for vaccine rollouts," said Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison).

Evers declined to directly answer questions during the week about whether he would veto the bills should they reach his desk.

Republican lawmakers continued their pushback on Evers's emergency measures. They scheduled a vote for Tuesday in the Senate that would strike down the latest emergency order extension, which includes a statewide mask order.

Vaccine Rollout Frustration

Republican legislators also seek to get involved in the state's administration of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Sanfelippo authored a bill that would put all adults 60 and older into the highest prioritization category. The proposal also requires the Department of Health Services to develop a plan by the end of February outlining how it will begin vaccinating the general public by March 15.

"Based on the information we are hearing from the federal government with the addition of new vaccines available, I think that's very doable," Sanfelippo said.

DHS officials have said, at the current pace of vaccine doses coming into the state -- about 70,000 first doses per week -- it will already take about two full months to cover the approximately 700,000 residents 65 and older; that group was approved Tuesday to start receiving the vaccine.

"Well I think that's a great plan," Agard said of vaccinating the general public on March 15. "If only we had vaccines available to us here in the state of Wisconsin. We can pass legislation but actually implementing legislation, that's a different ball of wax."

Republicans have criticized the DHS this month over the state lagging others in its administration.

The CDC data tracker, as of Friday, found only four states had administered fewer doses per 100,000 people than Wisconsin. However, only five states had received fewer doses per 100,000 people.

Biden's Inheritance

President Joe Biden officially became the 46th President of the United States Wednesday in Washington. UW-Madison Political Science Professor Kenneth Mayer says Biden's may have the most challenging start since Franklin D. Roosevelt 88 years ago.

"You would have to go back to perhaps 1932 and then earlier than that to find a similar set of circumstances with a new president coming in and confronting such a wide range of problems," Mayer said.

Biden is tasked with finishing the pandemic's grip on the country, having already killed 400,000 Americans. It has also lead to widespread economic desperation, millions pleading for more aid from the government and millions of others demanding the government stop restricting their businesses.

Biden will also be held to standards his campaign set on addressing economic inequality, racial justice, and climate change.

Mayer said while Biden can make some inroads through executive orders, truly meaningful, sustainable policy change would require legislation. Democrats control both houses of Congress but by the slimmest of margins.

"That's going to be the real marker, the real test, is whether President Biden can put together bipartisan coalitions and attracting at least some Republican support for the things he wants to do," Mayer said.

Perhaps the biggest test of Biden will be whether his words and demeanor can bring together a deeply divided country. Mayer said the president's conduct can make a difference but said we should also be realistic about what any one political figure can accomplish with regard to changing hearts and minds.

"It's clearly not going to be Biden saying 'we are united' and snapping his fingers and it's all unicorns and rainbows," Mayer said. "But the way a president comports themselves, what the presidents say, how they act, how they speak, that matters."

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A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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