After Republicans defied N.J. Statehouse vaccine policy, angry Democrats say voting will be remote next week

Published: Dec. 03, 2021

After a group of Republican lawmakers defied the new vaccination policy at the New Jersey Statehouse on Thursday, Democratic leaders of the state Assembly have decided next week’s committee meetings will be held remotely, a spokesman told NJ Advance Media on Friday.

It’s the first reaction following one of the most dramatic — and polarizing — days the the Statehouse has seen in recent memory.

A group of Republicans in the Assembly ignored a new policy that people in the building have to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test. They declined to present either document as they walked into the Assembly chambers after a standoff with State Police troopers. And they proceeded to stay on the floor for more than two hours as angry Democrats — who control state government — tried unsuccessfully to eject them.

But this likely isn’t the end of the issue, with some Republicans planning to keep disobeying the policy and Democrats expected to keep trying to enforce it as coronavirus cases continue to rise in New Jersey.

The Assembly, the lower house of the state Legislature, has committee hearings scheduled for Monday and a quorum call on Thursday. Kevin McArdle, a spokesman for the Assembly Democrats, said Friday that leaders decided to hold next week’s action remotely — a move that avoids another showdown for the time being.

The house’s next full voting session is scheduled for Dec. 16, as lawmakers try to tackle bills in the lame-duck period before the next Legislature is sworn in Jan. 11.

Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, D-Essex, said holding next week’s meetings via Zoom is “the smart thing to do” until the issue is either resolved in court or through negotiations between top lawmakers in both parties.

Republicans also filed a lawsuit challenging the policy, arguing it’s unconstitutional and that the little-known state commission that approved it overstepped its authority. A judge on Thursday set a hearing date for Dec. 13.

It’s unclear whether there will be a ruling by the Dec. 16 voting session at the Statehouse.

“This has to be worked out,” Caputo said. “Hopefully we get this thing resolved by the 16th.”

The Democrat said it’s not just a political matter but a health issue, to help protect both lawmakers and the public from a virus that has killed more than 28,400 people in the state.

“We had people that broke the rules and really didn’t care about the health consequences,” Caputo said. “Why would they want to risk spreading disease?”

Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris, one of the most vocal Republicans who defied the policy Thursday, said he has “no intention of complying” for future voting sessions.

“They’re just so used to jamming everything down our throats,” Bergen said of Democrats. “We had no alternative to do what we did. The alternative would have been to acquiesce and accept.”

Bergen also accused Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, of making next week’s meetings remote because “he doesn’t want to lose the battle.”

Plus, Bergen dismissed the idea of the policy protecting people from rising case.

“Stop with this,” he said. “Cases rise and cases fall. It’s gonna be that way whether a policy like this is in effect or not in effect. ... The policy doesn’t do anything to keep COVID from coming in the building. The only true way to prevent it would be to test everybody.”

The policy was approved by the State Capitol Joint Management Commission in October. Coughlin and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, also released their own rules Thursday saying any lawmaker who doesn’t present proof of vaccination or a negative test within seven days won’t be allowed on their chamber floors.

What continues to be unclear is whether the State Police, who patrol the Statehouse, has the willingness or even the authority to enforce those rules.

Troopers initially tried to stop non-compliant Republicans from entering the Assembly chamber but ultimately allowed them. Bergen said a trooper told him they couldn’t physically restrain them.

Coughlin later ordered security sweeps Thursday in an attempt to remove Republicans from the Assembly chamber. But no lawmaker ended up being ejected.

In a speech on the floor, Coughlin called Republicans’ actions “a political stunt” and said there was a “colossal failure in security here at the Statehouse.”

State Sen. Holly Schepisi, R-Bergen, countered that State Police troopers were “put in a very terrible position” Thursday.

“It’s not part and parcel of their job to be vaccine police and to try to prohibit members of the Legislature from doing their job,” Schepisi said.

The State Police have not returned multiple messages in recent days seeking comment about the issue.

The nonpartisan New Jersey Office of Legislative Services recently said lawmakers can’t be arrested solely for not following the vaccine policy, though Democratic leaders of the Legislature can exclude members from physically being in the building, as long as they are not barred from voting electronically.

Lawmakers are provided with rapid coronavirus tests at the Statehouse or have the option of voting remotely if they don’t comply.

The Senate, the upper house in the Legislature, didn’t have the same issue as the Assembly on Thursday. A number Republican senators oppose the policy but have said the proper way to oppose it is through the lawsuit.

This all comes one month after an election in which Republicans flipped seven seats in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Republican turnout soared, which experts say was partially because of anger over New Jersey’s COVID-19 policies.

Democrats have accused Republicans of defying the vaccine policy simply to appeal to the base, to the detriment of public health.

Thursday’s events are also reflected of the ever-divided political culture across the U.S.

Ben Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said it’s likely Republican Assembly members “will find a very supportive base in their party” for their stance — but he noted the next legislative election isn’t for another two years. The issue now, he said, is if Democrats and Republicans can get along to conduct “the people’s business” in the meantime.

“I think the bottom line is that anybody who’s served on any governing body knows you have to find ways to work together in order to be able to function,” Dworkin said. “When you don’t, you end up like the dysfunction in Washington. New Jersey has largely avoided that. Hopefully the many reasonable voices on both sides will be able to find a way out of this.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-12-04 05:05:20 -0800