Blue on blue: Vulnerable House Dems ready to battle Biden on repealing transit mask mandate?

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

I didn’t think we were going to get any drama out of last week’s Senate resolution to repeal the transit mask mandate but the fact that the head of the DCCC sounds eager for the House to take up the bill makes it interesting. Does Pelosi put it on the floor, knowing how the vote is apt to split her caucus?

And if she does, and it passes, will Biden hang anti-mandate Democrats out to dry by following through on his promise to veto the bill?

If you’re a House Democrat in a purple district staring at a Republican tidal wave gathering in November, the politics of this issue are simple. Last month the DCCC got some ominous news from its pollster following a survey of the 60 most competitive House battlegrounds. Fifty-seven percent of the voters there agreed with the statement, “Democrats in Congress have taken things too far in their pandemic response.” Among self-defined “swing voters,” 66 percent said so.

Sean Patrick Maloney, the Democrat chairing the DCCC this year, had the fear of God put into him by those results. Ever since, he’s been pushing his party to ditch mandates. “We as Democrats should not be, out of some sense of correctness, falling in love with [mask] mandates when they aren’t necessary,” he said on MSNBC last month. “We should get rid of them as quickly as we responsibly can.” Maloney knows that the House majority will be won or lost in those 60 battlegrounds this fall. If voters there are tired of mandates, he’s tired of mandates.

And that includes the transit mask mandate Biden is threatening to veto:

“I’m completely over mask mandates,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told Axios. “I don’t think they make any sense anymore. I’m for whatever gets rid of mask mandates as quickly as possible.”

“I think you’re safer on an airplane than you are in a restaurant or at the gym, so I don’t know why we’re wearing masks in the air.”

He’s right. Airplanes have a filtration system that recycles air in the cabin every few minutes. And while the quarters are more cramped than they are in a gym, it’s not as if passengers are being scrupulous about covering their mouths under the current rules. “You go on an airplane (and) if you just want to sit there and read a magazine without a mask, they say that’s the worst thing in the world. But the person right next to you pulls their mask down and fakes sipping on water for two hours (and) they don’t have to wear the mask. I mean, give me a break. This is theater,” Ron DeSantis said a few days ago.

Other House Dems facing tough reelection bids this fall have followed Maloney towards repealing the transit mandate:

“I would vote for that,” Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) told Axios. She argued that localities and airlines “can make that decision for themselves.”

“If, based on science, [airplanes are] just as safe as anywhere else, then we should be considering it,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.).

“People are ready and are armed with the information they need to protect themselves,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). “I think we ought to consider it, the question is: when?”

Of the eight Senate Democrats who voted to repeal the mandate, four of them happen to be up for reelection this fall in swing states. Go figure.

Asked about the Senate bill, Steny Hoyer wouldn’t commit to holding a vote on it. For good reason: Given how narrow the Democratic majority is, it’s a cinch that it’ll pass with Republican support. And if it does, our Democratic president will suddenly be forced into a tough spot in which he’ll either sign it and piss off hypercautious liberals who want to keep following the CDC’s recommendations or veto it and piss off that 66 percent of swing voters who think Democrats are too heavy-handed with restrictions.

Quite a pickle, although I assume Biden will keep his pledge to veto the bill and disappoint Maloney and the centrists for two reasons. One is that he pledged to do it and would look weak if he backed down under pressure. The other, more importantly, is that the current mandate comes with an expiration date. The CDC renewed it through April 18 a few weeks ago; if cases remain low until then, the agency might ditch it next month and the Dems’ intramural debate will evaporate organically. If, on the other hand, cases have begun to rise again by mid-April — which is likely given the BA.2 surge Europe is experiencing — then even centrist Dems may get cold feet about repealing the mandate. The new imperative to slow the spread nationally will drain some of the DCCC’s enthusiasm for unmasking:

Medical experts advocate for continued masking on public transportation, specifically air travel, to reduce broader community transmission.

One person wearing a masks reduces the likelihood of getting COVID-19 by about 50%, Leonard J. Marcus, director of the Aviation Public Health Initiative at Harvard University said, adding that the chance of transmitting also decreases by about 50%.

“If you put that together – so you’ve got a lot of people on an aeroplane, everybody’s wearing a mask – you’ve done something, in combination with the ventilation system, that really reduces the likelihood of transmission,” Marcus said.

Maloney has to worry about his left flank too. If he and the House caucus go all-in on ditching mandates at a moment of higher transmission, the COVID hawks in his base will accuse him of selling out to reckless Republicans for electoral gain. Especially if the CDC were to recommend reinstating the since-repealed mandate next month as the BA.2 wave unspools in the U.S.

I’ll leave you with Scott Gottlieb, who has his priorities straight. We should worry less about masking on planes with a new surge headed to the U.S. than we should about getting the elderly boosted ASAP.