The Biden administration drove past an off-ramp nearly four months ago that offered a chance to rethink and possibly scrap its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for U.S. troops.
Instead, Pentagon leaders have doubled down on the requirement and are barreling toward a head-on collision with Congress. Lawmakers see an annual defense spending bill as an effective way to strong-arm the Defense Department into relaxing the policy, reinstating thousands of service members who have refused to get the shot and giving those troops back pay.
The high-stakes confrontation 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, have said they are open to discussion about rolling back the mandate. The Senate reportedly is having similar debates.
Those discussions are taking place behind the scenes as negotiators hash out the $847 billion National Defense Authorization Act. 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 are standing their ground.
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“We lost a million people to this virus,” Defense Secretary Lloyd 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 President 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. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, vowed over the weekend that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) won’t move forward without a provision lifting the policy. If Democrats are in fact willing to budge, perhaps in exchange for other concessions from Republicans, a bill that repeals the military vaccine mandate could clear both chambers of Congress.
“We’re working through … the national defense bill. We will secure lifting that vaccine mandate on our military,” Mr. McCarthy told Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures” program. “Because what we’re finding is, they’re kicking out men and women that have been serving. … That’s the first victory of having a Republican majority, and we’d like to have more of those victories, and we should start moving those now.”
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That 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, along 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.”
Several news organizations reported that congressional Democrats may be ready to support just such a policy rider in the giant NDAA to be voted on this month. In a compromise measure, those who were discharged or punished for refusing the vaccine would not be reinstated, but some form of compensation for those affected could be provided, lawmakers involved in the negotiations said.
Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, opened a new front in the battle Tuesday, announcing he intended to place a “hold” on all Defense Department nominee confirmation votes until the Pentagon explains why it has granted so few waivers for troops who asked tof an exemption from getting the COVID-19 vaccine on religious or faith grounds.
“I’ve demanded answers on why the Biden admin has granted almost none of the thousands of religious exemption requests for military vaccine mandates,” Mr. Lankford wrote in a Twitter post. “With no adequate response, I announced a hold on [Defense Department] nominees.
The percentage of denials across military services has been stark. In the Army, for example, 4,461 soldiers have requested a vaccine waiver on religious grounds. Only 119 have been approved, according to the service’s latest data. More than 3,700 Marines have sought religious exemptions from the shot, with just 23 having been approved, the service said on Dec. 1.
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.”
• Joseph Clark contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.