This year, Congress’ annual defense bill, a mandatory measure authorizing military spending for the coming year, includes a unique provision.
The legislation, known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), allocates more than $840 billion in defense funds and would void the military mandate for the Covid-19 vaccine. That mandate, put in place in August 2021 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among service members, is being opposed by Republicans, who have long railed against vaccine mandates in general. Now the GOP is using the NDAA to win a victory over something they have turned into a culture war issue.
The Republicans’ main argument centers on personnel: They say the military mandate for the Covid-19 vaccine has expelled thousands of service members at a time when there are already severe labor shortages. About 8,000 active-duty service members have been discharged because they refused vaccination, for US newsbut representing a tiny fraction more than the military 1 million active duty members. As reported by Politicoabout 98% of servicemen have been vaccinated.
Since the NDAA needs at least 10 Republican votes to pass the Senate and will likely need House Republican support given the narrow majority of Democrats in that chamber, the GOP has a key opportunity to secure a messaging and policy victory over the vaccine requirements. The Republican efforts also suggest that they will continue to exploit Democrats’ need for cooperation in the new term, when they control the House and Democrats the Senate.
“This is the first win to have a Republican majority, and we wish we had more of those wins, and we should start moving them now,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on FoxNews last weekend, regarding the rollback of the vaccine mandate.
Why Republicans Pushed to Overturn the Vaccine Mandate
The Biden administration, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, has opposed putting vaccine mandate repeal in the NDAA, even if it is he stopped short of saying that the president will not sign it if it contains this provision. “A million people have died in the United States of America. We have lost hundreds in DOD. So this mandate kept people healthy” Austin told reporters last weekend. Additionally, the White House noted that the military has long had mandates for other vaccines, including the flu and a host of other illnesses.
In recent weeks, however, Republicans have made repealing the Covid-19 vaccine mandate a top priority, arguing it has impacted the military’s ability to manpower. The NDAA was an excellent opportunity to make a point on this issue, which has been politicized in recent years, with Republicans arguing the mandates represent an un-American assault on personal freedom. As cases of Covid-19 have declined across the country, Republican lawmakers have only argued more openly that there is less need for these requirements.
Republicans’ main complaint is that the vaccine mandate has made it harder for the military to keep people and recruit new service members. a claim that is not supported by “hard data”, according to Austin. The reasons for the recruitment shortages are nuanced: As reported by the Associated PressThe Army has missed its recruitment goal by 25% over the past year, with military leaders attributing the gap to a number of factors, including the inability to conduct in-person recruitments due to the pandemic and hesitancy of the vaccine. Marine Corps Commander Gen. David Bergera top military leader, said vaccine mandates pose some hurdles to recruiting due to misinformation about the Covid-19 hits.
Along with the mandate rescission, Republicans have called for a provision reinstating service members who have been discharged in the past due to the vaccine mandate, though that did not go into the bill.
The push against the military vaccine mandate marks the latest GOP effort to make vaccine mandates a contentious issue in several pending bills. Republicans have repeatedly made threats suspend government funding unless they could vote on amendments that would defund the vaccine mandates the Biden administration has put in place for federal employees and health care workers. Since those mandates were established, GOP lawmakers have often exploited the issue as a way to show their grassroots that they’re protecting people’s freedoms.
“It is an honor to fight for our service members and ensure they are protected under Biden’s COVID vaccine mandate,” Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) tweeted.
The White House, on the other hand, has criticized Congress’s decision to rescind the mandate on vaccines, saying vaccinations remain important to maintaining the ability of troops to serve when and where needed. “Vaccines are saving lives, including our men and women in uniform. So this remains very, very much a health and readiness issue for the force,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Monday. according to the New York Times.
Republicans want to use these bills to score political points
McCarthy signaled that Republicans are eager to use legislation like the defense bill to bolster their arguments on cultural issues once they take over the House majority in January. He even urged Congress to delay passage of the defense bill until next year so they can include more provisions that fight the “wake-ism” that he says Democrats are supporting. Although McCarthy did not specify which policies he was interested in, Politico reported it that this umbrella could include things like initiatives to make the military more diverse.
Republicans’ pushback on this issue indicates how they could use House control next year in a divided Congress to ensure their priorities on everything from defense policy to appropriations to the debt ceiling. As several bills to pass will need House support to advance, the GOP will have multiple opportunities to use its influence to lobby for provisions like this one. The House is expected to pass the NDAA including rolling back the vaccine mandate this week, a move Republicans have described as just the beginning.
“[I]n 28 days the real work begins,” McCarthy said in a statement Tuesday. “The new Republican majority in the House will work to finally hold the Biden administration accountable and assist the men and women in uniform who have been unfairly targeted by this administration.”
Senator Marsha Blackburn, an outspoken critic of the military mandate for the Covid-19 vaccine, announced her withdrawal on the defense bill. Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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