NASHVILLE — Tennessee Republicans' expected call for a special legislative session on local and business-related COVID-19 restrictions next week opens a wide door to address some GOP members' concerns.
That could mean banning universal face masking requirements but also addressing the liability of employers for "harm or injury" sustained "as the result of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine."
Other areas of the call include a favorite topic for some Republicans — ending nonpartisan elections for local school board members, in the hopes local school officials would be more responsive to the GOP base and its opposition to vaccine and mask mandates.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said the broadness of the call's language was to include areas of concern for a number of Republicans.
That doesn't necessarily mean all the ideas will pass, Sexton said as he spoke about language that would allow legislators to push back against mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for some businesses in response to the Biden administration's plan to come up with rules for that.
"I don't think the call says we are regulating or we're going to force a mandate, what it does is give us the capability to have those discussions," Sexton told reporters after the House and Senate convened in response to Republican Gov. Bill Lee's call for a separate special session.
Lee is asking legislators to approve a nearly $900 million package of incentives and infrastructure investments related to Ford Motor Co.'s planned $5.6 billion investment in a factory complex in rural West Tennessee.
Lee refused to accede to Sexton and a number of other Republicans' request to agree to their COVID-19 session, so GOP leaders plan to meet the two-thirds requirement to call themselves into special session.
Referring specifically to pushing back on President Joe Biden's planned mandate on companies to require employee COVID-19 vaccines or require workers to submit to weekly tests for the virus, Sexton cited steps taken by Texas, Montana, Iowa and Florida.
"We may go in a total different direction," Sexton said, adding that the language of the call "gives us the ability to talk about different directions. We may go in a totally different direction."
GOP Senate leaders are agreeing to the call, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin said.
House Finance Committee Chair Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, said, "We'll be looking at all of those [issues]. I don't know what bills will actually be filed as of yet. Those are the topics that are allowed to be under consideration.
"I have some opinions but I'll wait and see what the actual bills are and we'll discuss them through the process," Hazlewood added.
None of it is sitting well with Democrats.
House Democratic Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie of Nashville called Republicans' COVID-19 session "asinine."
"Sixteen months ago we had a special session to discuss how to combat COVID and failed miserably. Now 16 months later the Republicans want us to come together against, at taxpayer expense, to continue to pass more legislation that will fail to stop the spread of COVID-19 and continue to put more lives at risk," Dixie said in a statement.
"What is being proposed with regards to COVID is partisan and in my view not in the best interests of the state as a whole," said Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said he had been reluctant to support the House language.
"I can't remember who said it, some famous politician from California, I can't remember her name, but I think she said something to the effect you have to vote for this bill in order to see what's in it," he said.
The phrase was used by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, during the battle over the federal Affordable Care Act. She was quoted saying, "We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it."
It's unclear how far some of the House measures will get in the Senate.
COVID-19 is even entering the discussion at Lee's special session for the Ford incentives.
Rep. Rusty Grills, R-Newbern, has introduced a bill that would let employees receive unemployment benefits after quitting their jobs because of vaccination mandates. Under normal circumstances, the state disqualifies people who voluntarily quit their job without good work-related cause.
Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, told the Times Free Press on Sunday that he will push for the state to follow Montana's lead and pass a law banning COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment. Businesses are expected to fight it.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.