(Reuters) - President Joe Biden on Thursday urged local governments to pay people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and set new rules requiring federal workers to provide proof of vaccination or face regular testing, mask mandates, and travel restrictions.

The measures are Biden's latest attempt to spur reluctant Americans to get vaccinated as the Delta variant of the coronavirus surges nationwide, infecting unvaccinated people in particular.

The United States lags other developed countries in vaccination rates, despite having plenty of free vaccines on hand. White House efforts to urge the hesitant to get vaccinated have hit a wall of anti-vaccine sentiment, misinformation, and political division.

Biden's decision to require millions of federal workers and contractors to show proof of vaccination is a departure from previous opposition to so-called vaccine passports. It shows the White House taking a tougher stance towards circumstances within Biden's control as the virus spreads.

"Right now too many people are dying or watching someone they love," dying, Biden told reporters at the White House.

"With freedom comes responsibility. So please exercise responsible judgment. Get vaccinated for yourself, the people you love, for your country."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 163.8 million people in the United States are fully vaccinated out of a population of some 330 million.


The federal government is the largest employer in the United States and Biden's move could serve as an example for private businesses and other institutions to follow as they assess getting workers back into offices and workplaces.

Government employees who do not show they have been vaccinated will be subject to weekly or twice-weekly COVID-19 tests and restrictions on official travel.

The United States has about 2.18 million civilian employees and 570,000 other U.S. Postal Service (USPS) workers, according to 2020 data. The U.S. government employed 3.7 million contract employees as of 2017, a New York University study found. Postal workers are not affected by the new rules.

Meanwhile, state, local and U.S. territorial governments will be able to dip into $350 billion in coronavirus aid to provide $100 payments for every newly vaccinated American to boost COVID-19 inoculation rates, the U.S. Treasury Department said. 

"I know that paying people to get vaccinated might sound unfair to folks who have gotten vaccinated already. But here's the deal: if incentives help us beat this virus, I believe we should use them," Biden said.

OPENING SCHOOLS

Biden's pandemic strategy is coming under scrutiny as the Delta variant spreads and many Americans resist taking the vaccine. Growing outbreaks could have an impact on the strong economic recovery; the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 6.5 percent, the government said on Thursday.

Another issue is how the surge in infections affects efforts to get children back into schools in the fall.

"We can and we must open schools this fall, full time," Biden said. "We can't afford another year out of the classroom."

Biden pressed school districts to hold at least one "pop-up vaccination clinic" in the coming weeks to get children aged 12 and older vaccinated.

The White House also said small- and medium-sized businesses will be reimbursed for offering their workers paid time off to get children and other family members vaccinated.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which has 150,000 federal employees in 34 departments and agencies, said it encouraged its members to get vaccinated but had questions about how the new rules Biden laid out would be implemented.

"We will work to ensure employees are treated fairly and this protocol does not create an undue burden on them," the union's president, Tony Reardon, said in a statement.

The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which has 90,000 members including some 30,000 NASA engineers and other skilled federal workers, said it supported a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal workers.

"We don’t want any more of our members dying," the union's president, Paul Shearon, said in a statement.

Biden also directed the Defense Department to look into "how and when" it will require members of the military to take the vaccine.

U.S. President Joe Biden, who has called for providing a pathway to citizenship for so-called Dreamer immigrants, said on Thursday that a big budget bill being written by Democrats in Congress should tackle immigration.

Biden, who made the comment to reporters at the White House, said on Sunday he was uncertain whether a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers could be included in the bill, which Democrats plan to pass without Republican support. 

Dreamers are immigrants brought to the United States as children who are protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

His latest comments come after he and Vice President Kamala Harris met at the White House with Democratic lawmakers to discuss the DACA program.

"It went very well," Biden said of the meeting, adding he was on board with an immigration proposal being included in the budget reconciliation bill.

Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who attended the meeting, said Democrats have an opportunity to push for immigration reform via the bill and the president supports the move.

"He (Biden) made it clear to us, unequivocally clear that he stands with our efforts," Durbin told reporters.

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto said there is a chance for the budget reconciliation bill to pass and that lawmakers must use that to do something about a "broken" immigration system. "We have to take that opportunity," she said.

The meeting follows a ruling by a federal judge in Texas earlier this month that said that the DACA program could no longer accept new applications.

Senate Democratic leaders this month told other members the budget measure would open the door to legislation on climate measures, social spending, and extension of a child tax credit.

However, it remains unclear if the Senate parliamentarian, who decides which provisions may be included in a budget package, will approve the inclusion of an immigration measure.

Most bills in the U.S. Senate require support from 60 of the 100 members to be taken up for a vote. With the U.S. Senate evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, the rule has threatened to stall Biden's agenda.

Budget reconciliation measures, however, can clear the chamber on a simple majority vote, in which case Vice President Kamala Harris could break the tie.

DACA protects recipients from deportation, grants them work authorization and access to driver's licenses, and in some cases better access to financial aid for education. It does not provide a path to citizenship.

People protected under DACA primarily are young Hispanic adults born in Mexico and countries in Central and South America who were brought to the United States as children.