Congressional Democrats have included a Republican-backed measure to repeal President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for service members in the annual Pentagon policy bill, dealing a severe blow to the White House.
The decision follows Mr. Biden’s siding with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in opposition to repealing the mandate after initially signaling that he would consider the proposal after speaking with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, over the weekend.
Republicans say the mandate harms military readiness and has led to the Pentagon’s ability to meet its recruiting goals.
Mr. McCarthy wasted little time in lauding the Republican victory soon after the text of the $847 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was released Tuesday night.
“The end of President Biden’s military COVID vaccine mandate is a victory for our military and for common sense,” Mr. McCarthy said shortly afterward. “Last week, I told the president directly: it’s time to end the COVID vaccine mandate and rehire our service members.”
Mr. McCarthy was joined in the celebration soon after the bill was made public by a group of GOP senators staunchly opposed to the mandate led by Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee
“The United States needs a strong military to protect our country against the growing threats facing our nation,” they said in a statement. “We are pleased that the final conferenced bill includes language mirroring our amendments’ efforts to protect troops from being fired due to Biden’s COVID vaccine mandate without fair appeal and to the harm of service readiness.”
The other signatories were Sens. Roger Marshall of Kansas, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, Mike Braun of Indiana, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho, Steve Daines of Montana, and John Hoeven of North Dakota.
The move by Republicans on Capitol Hill to end the mandate followed calls by 21 Republican governors that Congress “take immediate action to remove and prohibit” the vaccine mandate through the defense spending bill or a separate measure.
Once Congress passes the measure, the Pentagon will have 30 days to fully rescind the requirement, which has been in place since August 2021.
While the language included in the NDAA repeals the mandate going forward, the text does not include provisions to reinstate those who refused to receive the vaccine while the mandate was in place.
Mr. McCarthy said that while he applauds the move to repeal the mandate, he will continue to press for military members to have their service reinstated.
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“These heroes deserve justice now that the mandate is no more,” he said. “The Biden administration must correct service records and not stand in the way of re-enlisting any service member discharged simply for not taking the COVID vaccine.”
In another sign of the possible compromise reached, the text of the bill, released Tuesday night, does not have a provision that liberal Democrats opposed: a proposal to loosen pipeline permitting rules supported by Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat.
The high-stakes confrontation between Congress and the president/Pentagon could have been avoided, some legal specialists say. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Aug. 11 that infection from the virus carried “significantly less risk of severe illness” than it did earlier in the pandemic when the military mandate was enacted.
The Pentagon could have used that guidance to back away from a policy that faces legal challenges and is losing political support in Washington.
Even high-profile Democrats, such as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith of Washington, began to say they are open to discussion about rolling back the mandate. The Senate reportedly is having similar debates.
What changed was key Republicans said they are willing to stand in the way of the bill unless the Pentagon budges on the vaccination requirement, which is responsible for pushing thousands of troops out of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
Biden administration defense officials stood their ground.
“We lost a million people to this virus,” Mr. Austin told reporters over the weekend. “A million people died in the United States of America. We lost hundreds in DOD. So this mandate has kept people healthy.
“I support continuation of vaccinating the troops,” said Mr. Austin, echoing other top defense officials in recent days.
The White House initially seemed open to a compromise. Officials said as recently as Sunday that Mr. Biden informed congressional leaders that he would consider lifting the mandate.
The White House slammed that door shut on Monday by offering a full-throated endorsement of the policy despite its increasingly grim prospects for survival.
“Secretary Austin has been very clear that he opposes the repeal of that vaccine mandate, and the president actually concurs with the secretary that we need to continue to believe that all Americans, including those in the armed forces, should be vaccinated and boosted for COVID-19,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
In the end, the administration may have little choice but to compromise.
Mr. McCarthy’s position has strong support among a group of Republicans in the Senate, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky, who have been on different sides of many other foreign policy and defense debates.
Mr. Graham and Mr. Paul, with 11 other Republican senators, wrote in a letter to party leaders last week that they are willing to block the defense bill unless the mandate is reversed.
“The Department of Defense COVID-19 vaccine mandate has ruined the livelihoods of men and women who have honorably served our country,” they wrote. “The effects of this mandate are antithetical to the readiness of our force, and the policy must be revoked.”
Since the vaccination deadlines passed last December, the ramifications for the U.S. military have been stark.
At least 1,841 soldiers have been kicked out of the Army for refusing the vaccine, according to the service’s latest figures. In the Navy, the number is 2,064. The Marine Corps has been hit the hardest, with 3,717 ousted after refusing to get the shot, the service said in a Dec. 1 press release.
The policy seemed destined for trouble as other corners of society relaxed vaccination requirements and as court cases challenging the Pentagon mandate mounted. Several of those cases resulted in protections against punishment for unvaccinated service members after their requests for religious waivers were denied.
Critics say the Defense Department could have seized on the CDC’s August guidance to change course before committing to a legal and political fight it appears destined to lose.
“Up until Aug. 11, if you pushed back on anyone in the DOD involved with policy, they would say, ‘Well, we’re just following CDC guidance. … That was a moment when DOD could have said, ‘We’ve been following the CDC all along. They’ve now changed their guidance, so we’re no longer mandating this.’ They didn’t do that,” said R. Davis Younts, a Pennsylvania lawyer representing service members who have refused the vaccine, including some who have sued the Defense Department over the policy.
“There is a question of what an off-ramp looks like and how you justify what you’ve done,” Mr. Younts told The Washington Times.
“You’re talking thousands of people kicked out over something that does not provide protection from infection and transmission. Looking for that off-ramp that saves face, Aug. 11 — I pinned that date on my calendar. That was a great opportunity. You missed it.”
While stressing the importance of vaccines, the Aug. 11 guidance relaxed quarantine rules, including for the unvaccinated, and lightened other rules that had become a part of American life for more than two years.
“We’re in a stronger place today as a nation, with more tools — like vaccination, boosters and treatments — to protect ourselves, and our communities, from severe illness from COVID-19,” CDC official Greta Massetti said in the Aug. 11 statement.
“We also have a better understanding of how to protect people from being exposed to the virus, like wearing high-quality masks, testing and improved ventilation. This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives,” she said.