Heated debate over swine flu vaccine efforts divides some on Capitol Hill

Heated debate over swine flu vaccine efforts divides some on Capitol Hill

In the war over healthcare reform in the Senate, a little skirmish has broken out — should Americans get vaccinated against swine flu, or is it a big-government initiative that should be avoided?

Right-wing pundits like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have recently spoken out against government direction on the H1N1 vaccine, saying that individuals should make up their own minds whether to get vaccinated or not. Some left-wing pundits, such as Bill Maher, have made similar statements.

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In the Senate, the topic has accomplished the rare feat of uniting Democrats and Republicans — members of both parties are promoting vaccinations regardless of the rhetoric.

“We have some very fine scientists,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.). ”I think people ought to make the decision for themselves. But between you and me, if I had to make a choice between Rush Limbaugh and some of our government scientists, I would stay with the scientists.”

According to an analysis by The Hill, 42 Democrats in the House and Senate have followed Sanders’ lead by cutting public service announcements. Only four Republicans have followed suit — Sens. Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiTrump’s Army pick faces tough confirmation fight Republican Sen. Collins considering run for Maine governor in 2018 Alaska senators push bill to allow Arctic drilling MORE of Alaska, Jim RischJim RischTax profits not cash flow: An alternative to the GOP plan that helps small business Senate panel advances small business cybersecurity bill Lawmakers call for pilot program to test for energy sector vulnerabilities MORE of Idaho and Mike JohannsMike JohannsLobbying World To buy a Swiss company, ChemChina must pass through Washington Republican senator vows to block nominees over ObamaCare co-ops MORE of Nebraska and Rep. Jo Emerson of Missouri. Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has also promoted the vaccine.

Limbaugh, on a recent radio show, lambasted the Obama administration and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelieus for admonishing the country to get vaccinated. Limbaugh said he has never been urged by a doctor to get vaccinated, and punctuated his commentary by saying, “Screw you, Ms. Sebelius, I’m not going to take it, precisely because you’re now telling me I must… Have you heard of the concept of liberty and freedom?”

Sebelius has stressed that the vaccinations are voluntary, and that the Obama administration is not attempting any kind of mandatory requirement.

But Senate Republicans are distancing themselves from Limbaugh’s remarks, saying they understand the concern over the vaccine and individual choice — although they plan to take it.

“It’s everybody’s individual decision they’ve got to make. I’ll probably take one. My doctor told me to,” said Sen. Saxby ChamblissSaxby ChamblissGOP hopefuls crowd Georgia special race Democrats go for broke in race for Tom Price's seat Spicer: Trump will 'help the team' if needed in Georgia special election MORE (R-Ga.). “I do think it should be everybody’s decision, like a normal flu shot. I don’t think the government ought to mandate it to anybody.”

“I would urge people to get the vaccine,” said Senate GOP Policy Chairman John ThuneJohn ThuneDisconnect: Trump, GOP not on same page Seven major players in Trump's trillion infrastructure push Trump’s great tech opportunity is in spectrum sharing MORE (R-S.D.).

Likewise, Republicans like Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin HatchDisconnect: Trump, GOP not on same page Overnight Tech: Dem wants to see FCC chief's net neutrality plans | New agency panel on telecom diversity | Trump calls NASA astronaut Lighthizer expected to win committee approval to lead trade office MORE (R-Utah) agree, saying they understand the anxiety but plan to receive the vaccine anyway.

“People are always concerned when they see a product that is formulated so quickly, especially in the area of vaccinations,” Hatch told The Hill. “But talking to people at HHS, it’s absolutely crucial, especially for vulnerable people in our population.”

Democrats are also standing behind the Obama administration, saying the vaccinations are necessary to prevent the extreme young or old from falling ill.

“It’s a pretty deadly virus, within certain age groups,” said Sen. Mark PryorMark PryorMedicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm MORE (D-Ark.). “Certainly those folks should get vaccinated. Apparently you get a really high fever, and there’s already been some reported cases in my state.”

The debate over a swine flu shot is even reaching into some Capitol Hill offices, causing an internal debate over image.

“It is an image issue,” said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). “There’s pressure in my office for me to take it, for an image issue to show that it’s safe. I don’t know what mitigates the most, whether I should take it or I shouldn’t take it.”