WASHINGTON – The Republican-controlled Senate voted to scrap a much-disputed 1996 presidential order requiring mandatory vaccinations against measles, mumps and rubella, as well as chickenpox, one of the most powerful civil liberties battles of the 20th century.
The GOP amendment to a rules package being debated on the Senate floor passed easily in a 58-36 vote.
Liberals and their allies fiercely denounced President Bill Clinton’s order, which, they argued, would benefit the wealthy and put insurance companies in charge of vaccine decisions for children. They also noted that Clinton, a Democrat, made it retroactive, allowing existing waivers in place by 1993 to be honored.
Clinton’s plan was not directly tied to the measles outbreak in California, which has left more than 100 people infected and sickened more than 1,000 others, including residents in 15 states.
The 1997 movie “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” dramatized the effect of a similar presidential order by the Soviet dictator, Vladimir Lenin.
According to the Center for Medical Progress at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, more than 400 million Americans have been exempted from compulsory vaccination because of personal and religious objections. Fourteen of the 18 CDC regions have experienced at least one outbreak of measles since 2008, with California and Washington, D.C., leading the way, according to the center’s research.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the measles outbreak “by far the largest on record and the easiest to cure.”
“These are serious problems that require serious and immediate action,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.
The response, he said, was the “vaccine-preventable disease-free condition that we know the West believes exists. This also means more than 100 infections every day of measles, mumps and rubella — the three diseases we should be immunizing our children against in this country.”
McConnell said the private sector can regulate the vaccine process.
“We can’t leave it to the government and the states, which has a recent history of filling in the gaps with substandard vaccines without appropriate safety and effectiveness standards,” he said.
“Perhaps most ironic of all, some, including some in the Senate, are suggesting we do away with the national vaccine law,” McConnell said. “We should strengthen the federal law in a way that includes more vaccinations and exactly what should be required. But I still think we should leave it to states.”
Even though Clinton’s order cannot stand, McConnell’s view has wide support among Republicans, who have long balked at increased federal regulation of the health-care industry.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who sponsored the amendment with Kentucky colleague Rand Paul, R-Ky., said the requirement would lead to “socialized medicine” and protect only the wealthy.
At the same time, some legislators have threatened to move quickly toward passing legislation that would dismantle that order. On Wednesday, seven Republican senators – John Cornyn of Texas, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, John Thune of South Dakota, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Roger Wicker of Mississippi – sent a letter to McConnell laying out proposals that would eliminate the requirements.
Cornyn and Sessions, the lead GOP authors of that measure, told reporters that it would eliminate the retroactive elements of Clinton’s order, and it would leave in place his 2004 executive order that created the National Vaccine Information Center, a nonprofit group aimed at providing advice to parents and spreading the gospel against vaccination.