The House and Senate Armed Services Committees released the text for the annual National Defense Authorization Act late Tuesday evening, setting in motion a series of votes on the must-pass budget to fund the U.S. military.
Buried on page 407 of the 4,000-plus page document is a requirement that the Department of Defense “rescind the mandate that members of the Armed Forces be vaccinated against COVID-19,” a controversial inclusion that, while presenting a thorn in the Biden administration’s side, likely won’t prevent the bill’s passage.
The requirement for service members to be vaccinated against COVID-19 was first put into place on Aug. 24, 2021 by defense secretary Lloyd Austin, and has been a point of contention for many Republicans in the year-plus since it was instated.
Several GOP senators vocally sought to include the provision to eliminate the vaccine mandate in this year’s NDAA, which overall would allocate $857 billion in defense funding – around $45 billion above President Joe Biden’s original request and a $75 billion increase from the year prior.
The bill also includes a 4.6% pay increase for service members, more funding to support Ukraine, additional spending for the Pentagon to accommodate inflation, and increased money for purchasing military hardware, among other big-ticket items.
Calling it a “strong, bipartisan” deal, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., praised fellow Republicans who pushed for the provision that “will repeal the president's military vaccine mandate, a policy which this democratic administration has stubbornly clung to even as it clearly undermined readiness and hurt retention.”
One of those lawmakers was Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who led a coalition of nearly two dozen Republican senators who vowed to vote against the bill if the COVID vaccine requirement wasn’t lifted, and if back pay issues were not addressed.
Paul on Wednesday, while cheering the foreseen end of the mandate, said the added provision doesn’t do enough for the service members who have been discharged for not getting vaccinated.
“One of the discussions we had at lunch today was whether an additional amendment would be needed for the NDAA [...] on whether to reinstate soldiers with back pay,” Paul said in part. “So there’s a possibility that we could negotiate that amendment which would be one step better.”
The White House on Wednesday called the elimination of the vaccine requirement a “mistake,” with press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre telling reporters during an afternoon press briefing: “What we think happened here is Republicans in Congress have decided that they’d rather fight against the health and well being of our troops [rather] than protecting them.”
Jean-Pierre would not, however, comment on whether President Joe Biden would decline to sign the NDAA should it reach his desk with the provision still included, saying she did not want to “get ahead of the vote” nor “get ahead of the president.”
John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, seemed slightly more optimistic during his own briefing on Wednesday, saying the administration does “take some comfort” in the high vaccination levels among U.S. service members, adding it is “very clear that the overwhelming number of our troops are getting vaccinated and protecting themselves as well as their teammates, as well as their families.”
The NDAA is expected to head to a vote in the House on Thursday before heading to the Senate.
While House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-N.Y., said Democrats did not necessarily want to give up the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, the inclusion was necessary in the process of negotiations, saying in part: “You just don’t get everything you want.”
“We’re not willing to give it up. This is not a question of will; it’s a question of how can we get something done?” Hoyer told reporters. “We have a very close vote in the Senate, very close vote in the House.”
A number of House Democrats appeared to agree with Hoyer’s sentiments, with Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., suggesting the NDAA meets the goals of both parties.
“With Republicans taking control of the House next Congress, this year’s NDAA serves as an excellent roadmap for how to take care of service members, maintain U.S. global leadership and protect Americans at home and abroad,” he told NatSec Daily.