Biden says Republican governors are undermining COVID safety response

By Nandita Bose

(Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday directed his ire at the governors of Florida and Texas, accusing the Republican leaders of “doing everything they can to undermine the life-saving requirements” he proposed to counter the spread of COVID-19.

Some Republican governors, including Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, have vowed to fight the vaccine mandate for big companies that Biden rolled out last week in the face of surging U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, mostly among the unvaccinated.

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves earlier this week likened Biden’s mandate to tyranny.

“I propose a requirement for COVID vaccines, and the governor of that state calls it a ‘tyrannical-type move?'” said Biden, noting that the pandemic has killed over 660,000 people in the United States.

“This is the worst type of politics…and I refuse to give in to it,” Biden said, adding that the policies rolled out by the White House are “what the science tells us to do.”

Some Republican-led states and a sizable minority of Americans have defied vaccine recommendations from health officials, arguing that mandates infringe on their personal freedoms.

With just 63% of the eligible U.S. population having received at least one vaccine dose, the U.S. vaccination rate now lags most developed economies.

Biden’s vaccine policy is expected to face a string of legal challenges from Republicans, including Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who became the first to file a lawsuit against it on Tuesday.

DeSantis has threatened fines for cities and counties that require employees get vaccinated against COVID-19, saying they violate Florida state law.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose; Writing by Tyler Clifford; Editing by Heather Timmons and Bill Berkrot)

Texas is latest U.S. state to advance Republican-backed voting limits

By Joseph Ax and Steve Gorman

(Reuters) -Texas joined other Republican-controlled states on Friday in advancing a slew of new voting restrictions, defying opposition from many of the state’s businesses and adding to a fierce national debate over voting rights.

The state House of Representatives in Austin gave the legislation preliminary approval at 3 a.m. CDT (0800 GMT) on Friday after hours of debate before delivering final approval around 2:45 p.m. (1945 GMT), largely along party lines.

Members of the House and the state Senate, which passed its own bill imposing voting limits last month, will now work to reconcile the two bills before sending a finalized version to Republican Governor Greg Abbott, who has indicated he will sign it.

Other states, including Georgia and Florida, have also enacted Republican-backed voting curbs after Republican former President Donald Trump falsely claimed his loss to Democrat Joe Biden in last year’s presidential election was the result of massive voter fraud. Republican legislators in numerous other states are pursuing similar changes.

The Texas House bill gives more access to partisan poll watchers and bars election officials from sending unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to voters, among other restrictions. The Senate bill includes limits on early voting and would prohibit 24-hour polling sites and drive-through voting, both changes that Harris County made last year during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sponsors of the bills said they are intended to prevent voter fraud while bolstering election integrity and public confidence in balloting.

“This bill is about protecting voters,” Republican Representative Briscoe Cain said during the House floor debate.

Democrats and civil rights groups counter that there is no evidence of widespread ballot tampering, and argue that such legislation disproportionately burdens or discourages voters of color, as well as the elderly and disabled. Voting rights advocates say Texas already has in place some of the highest barriers to voting of any state.

“In short, this bill is nothing but voter suppression,” Jasmine Crockett, a lawyer and first-term Democrat, said on the House floor.

On Tuesday, dozens of companies – including American Airlines Group Inc, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co and Microsoft Corp – urged legislators to reject any law restricting access to ballots.

Voting by mail, and early voting in general, surged during the 2020 election as voters sought to avoid ballot-box queues in the midst of the pandemic.

The Texas vote came a day after Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, signed a new law making it more difficult for voters to cast ballots by mail or to use ballot drop boxes.

In March, Georgia adopted a Republican-backed law that included sweeping new restrictions, sparking backlash from major U.S. corporations and prompting Major League Baseball to move its All-Star Game from Atlanta in protest.

More than three months after Biden was sworn in, Trump has continued to assert that the election was stolen. Courts have rejected those claims in more than 60 lawsuits challenging the results.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas, and Bhargav Acharya; Editing by Gerry Doyle, John Stonestreet and Jonathan Oatis)