Military vaccine mandate cut from NDAA, vote delayed

Politics

(NewsNation) — The National Defense Authorization Act, an $858 billion bill that funds national defense, will phase out President Joe Biden’s COVID vaccine mandate for military members. A draft of the bill released Tuesday night includes the repeal.

Republicans, emboldened by their new House majority next year, pushed the effort, which was confirmed Tuesday night when the bill was unveiled. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy personally lobbied President Joe Biden in a meeting last week to roll back the mandate.

Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said the removal of the vaccination requirement was essential for the defense policy bill to move forward.

“We have real recruitment and retention problems across all services. This was gas on the fire exacerbating our existing problem,” Rogers said. “And the president said, you know, the pandemic is over. It’s time for us to recognize that and remove this unnecessary policy.”

However, multiple Democratic senators have told NewsNation they’re not committing to support it.

“They need to be ready, ready for combat, they need to be trained, they need to be healthy, they need to be protected from disease. It’s just common sense, and I hope common sense prevails,” Democrat Sen. Gary Peters from Michigan said.

Peters, a veteran himself, told NewsNation he wants to support the NDAA, but said that having the military properly vaccinated against COVID and other diseases is crucial for readiness to fight. Peters would not commit to voting yes, NewsNation’s Joe Khalil said.

Moderate Democrat Sen. Jon Tester, who chairs the Veterans Committee, strongly suggested ending the vaccine mandate is a deal breaker.

“If this takes away our military’s readiness, that’s a deal breaker,” Tester said. “I can tell you that when I’m sick, I don’t perform well.”

Failing to pass the bill before the year’s end would deal a major blow to the country’s national defense.

The vaccine provision is one of the more acrimonious differences in the annual defense bill that the House is looking to wrap up this week and send to the Senate. It sets policy and provides a roadmap for future investments. It’s one of the final bills Congress is expected to approve before adjourning, so lawmakers are eager to attach their top priorities to it.

Service members and the Defense Department’s civilian workforce would get a 4.6% pay increase, according to a summary of the bill released Tuesday night. The legislation also requires a review of the rate of suicide in the Armed Forces since Sept. 11, 2001, broken down by service, occupational specialty and grade. It also requires the defense secretary to rescind the COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Military leaders acknowledge that the vaccine requirement is one of several factors contributing to their recruiting struggles. It may dissuade some young people from enlisting, but officials don’t know how many. This year the Army missed its recruiting goal by about 25%, while the other services scraped by.

Other Democratic sources that spoke with NewsNation ultimately said they expect the bill will pass.

They told NewsNation that the vaccine mandate part is more symbolic than substantive, saying that most military members are vaccinated.

As of early this month, about 99% of the active-duty troops in the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps had been vaccinated, and 98% of the Army. Service members who are not vaccinated are not allowed to deploy, particularly sailors or Marines on ships. There may be a few exceptions to that, based on religious or other exemptions and the duties of the service member.

The vaccination numbers for the Guard and Reserve are lower, but generally, all are more than 90%.

More than 8,000 active-duty service members were discharged for failure to obey a lawful order when they refused the vaccine.

Republican Rep. Lisa McClain told NewsNation that the bill must pass.

“This is a good NDAA national defense bill without any of the ‘wokeness’ or the garbage in it,” McClain said. “It’s a win for the country, for the servicemen.”

A Democratic source close to the Armed Services Committee told Khalil they think this may be Senators wanting to make a strong statement in support of vaccinations, but ultimately they think everyone will get on board.

The source also told Khalil that Democrats got some concessions, like funding and healthcare for military members who wish to have an abortion and may need to travel across state lines.

The defense bill will support up to about $858 billion in spending. Within this topline, the legislation authorizes nearly $817 billion for the Department of Defense and more than $30 billion for national security programs within the Department of Energy.

The bill provides funding that’s about $45 billion above the president’s budget request to address the effects of inflation, provide additional security assistance to Ukraine and accelerate other DoD priorities.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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