Lawmakers agree to repeal military vaccine mandate in defense bill over Pentagon objections

Congress is poised to use the annual defense policy bill to eliminate the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.  

In a compromise with Republicans, House Democrats are allowing language into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that repeals the coronavirus vaccine mandate for U.S. service members a year after it was enacted, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) confirmed to The Hill on Tuesday.  

The bill, which lays out how a $847 billion Defense Department (DOD) top line will be allocated in fiscal 2023, is tentatively set to be released late Tuesday or early Wednesday and voted on by the House on Thursday, Rogers said.  

Asked if he believes the language will stick amid all the last-minute jostling over the bill, Rogers replied, “Yes.” 

Republican lawmakers for months have pushed back on the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin first instituted in August 2021.  

Since then, thousands of active-duty service members have been discharged for refusing the shots, according to the latest Pentagon numbers.  

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is vying for the Speaker’s gavel in the next Congress, said on Sunday that the NDAA “will not move” unless the mandate for the military is lifted through the bill. 

The compromise is effectively a loss for the White House and Pentagon, which have both opposed using the NDAA to repeal the vaccine mandate.  

“We lost a million people to this virus,” Austin told reporters traveling with him Saturday, as reported by The Associated Press. “A million people died in the United States of America. We lost hundreds in DOD. So this mandate has kept people healthy.” 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday strongly supported the Pentagon’s mandate but also emphasized that the art of compromise means that no side gets everything it wants. For Democrats, he said, that might mean they have to give up the mandate to pass the bigger package. 

“It’s a question of how can you get something done,” he told reporter in the Capitol. “We have a very close vote in the Senate [and] a very close vote in the House. And you don’t just get everything you want.”

One thing not expected in the bill, however, is language to reinstate troops, sailors and airmen who were discharged or received penalties for declining the vaccine, a provision GOP lawmakers hoped to insert in the legislation.  

Instead, lawmakers on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are planning report language for the bill that allows the DOD to evaluate service members affected by the mandate, Rogers said.  

“There’s no statutory language, but there’s report language that tells the [Defense Department] to ascertain everybody that’s been adversely affected by the vaccine mandate and what it would take to make them whole and get that to us next year, and then we can decide if we want to try to do that or not,” he said.  

“Some people aren’t going to want to come back to the military, but if they do, what would that look like? How many people are we talking about?” he said.

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