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 Murkowski of Alaska, Jim Risch of Idaho and Mike Johanns 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 Chambliss (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 Thune (R-S.D.).

Likewise, Republicans like Sen. Orrin Hatch (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 Pryor (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.”