The U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 6 included a provision that terminates the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate in its defense funding bill.
The new National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (pdf) states that “Not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Defense shall rescind the mandate that members of the Armed Forces be vaccinated against COVID-19 pursuant to the memorandum dated August 24, 2021, regarding ‘Mandatory Coronavirus Disease 2019 Vaccination of Department of Defense Service Members.'”
“Make no mistake: this is a win for our military,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a statement.
But he called for the administration to go further by reenlisting any member who has been removed over vaccine refusal.
“In the United States, the number of new servicemembers joining the military is reaching a near record low. The United States needs a strong military to protect our country against the growing threats facing our nation,” they said. “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 House Rules Committee released the text of the bill days after Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, revealed that lawmakers were discussing an end to the vaccine mandate.
“I was a very strong supporter of the vaccine mandate when we did it, a very strong supporter of the Covid restrictions put in place by DoD and others,” Smith told Politico. “But at this point in time, does it make sense to have that policy from August 2021? That is a discussion that I am open to and that we’re having.”
A group of senators, including Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), also celebrated the move.
Mandate ‘Isn’t Worth it’
The costs to replace each member who has been discharged due to their refusal to get vaccinated—the military has denied en masse requests for religious exemptions—and other consequences, such as the impact on morale, shows the mandate “isn’t worth it,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Lee was one of 20 GOP senators who announced in late November that they would vote against the NDAA unless it included the termination of the mandate.
McCarthy said on Sunday that Congress would “secure lifting that vaccine mandate on our military.” The NDAA would not advance without that, McCarthy added. He also suggested that he made this position clear to President Joe Biden as they met for the first time since Republicans secured a House majority in the next Congress.
On Tuesday, McCarthy said that those discharged based solely on their decision not to take the vaccine “deserve justice,” and that the Biden administration “must correct service records and not stand in the way of re-enlisting” any such service members.
“Make no mistake: this is a win for our military,” he added. “But in 28 days the real work begins—the new House Republican majority will work to finally hold the Biden administration accountable and assist the men and women in uniform who were unfairly targeted by this Administration.”
White House Opposition
A veto-proof majority may be required to axe the mandate, which was announced in August 2021 by the Biden administration in the name of “military readiness.”
The White House told news outlets that McCarthy raised the issue during the meeting but that the administration wanted to keep the mandate in place.
“Leader McCarthy raised this with the President, and the President told him he would consider it,” a White House spokesperson said. “The Secretary of Defense has recommended retaining the mandate, and the President supports his position. Discussions about the NDAA are ongoing.”
Presidents can veto bills passed by Congress.
Overriding a veto requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber.
Dozens of Democrat senators and a number of Democrat House members would need to join Republicans to override a veto. Democrats have generally supported mandates during the pandemic, while Republicans have generally opposed them.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a Biden appointee, told reporters over the weekend that he wants to keep the mandate in place, claiming it has “kept people healthy.” The Pentagon did not return a request for evidence to back the claim.
Austin said in a memorandum dated Aug. 24, 2021, to top military officials that he determined that a mandate was needed “to protect the Force and defend the American people.”
The vaccines have provided little shielding against infection since Omicron emerged in late 2021, and the protection they provide against severe illness has gone down considerably.
Boosters shots were introduced because of the waning, but research suggests boosters provide a short-lived increase in protection. Every vaccine dose also carries the risk of side effects, including heart inflammation.
The military declined to require booster shots but has kept the primary series mandate in place. The primary series of the two most widely-administered vaccines, made by Moderna and Pfizer, consists of two doses.
“What I would tell you is as a warfighting organization, the health and readiness of our force is paramount. And vaccination for COVID is still a requirement,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a recent briefing.
“But, in terms of discussing proposed or pending legislation, I’m not going to be able to provide a comment on that and won’t have anything further to provide.”
The military has forced out some members who refused to get a vaccine, primarily members who have not asked for exemptions or were denied religious exemptions.
The Marine Corps has discharged 3,717 members for vaccine refusal as of Nov. 30. The branch has approved just 23 religious exemption requests out of 3,740 lodged.
The Navy has kicked out 2,064 members for vaccine refusal as of Nov. 30. The Navy has granted 51 religious accommodation requests out of more than 4,000 lodged.
The Army has separated 1,841 soldiers for vaccine refusal as of Dec. 1. The Army has approved 123 religious exemption requests and rejected more than 1,900.
The Air Force separated 834 members for vaccine refusal as of mid-July. It has approved roughly 200 religious exemptions out of about 11,000 received.