Biden supports keeping vaccine mandate for troops, setting up fight with Congress

Last updated on December 5, 2022

President Joe Biden and his Pentagon chief oppose any effort to repeal the vaccine mandate for troops, the White House said Monday, setting up a fight with lawmakers who want to roll back the policy as part of the upcoming defense policy bill.

“The president agrees with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that the Pentagon should continue to require all service members be vaccinated and boosted against Covid-19,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters.

“Secretary Austin has been very clear that he opposes the repeal of the vaccine policy, and the president actually concurs with the secretary of defense,” Kirby said. “He continues to believe that all Americans, including those in the armed forces, should be vaccinated and boosted for COVID-19.”

“Vaccines are saving lives, including our men and women in uniform. So this remains very much a health and readiness issue for the force,” he continued.

Kirby’s comments come as members of Congress consider repealing the controversial policy as part of the defense policy bill, which is set to be unveiled this week. Another possibility is that lawmakers keep the requirement to get the shot but undo the Pentagon’s policy of kicking out service members who refuse the vaccine.

At this point, 98 percent of the armed forces have been vaccinated against Covid-19, according to the DoD. But thousands of troops have been released from service for refusing the shot.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Fox News on Saturday that he had reached an agreement to repeal the mandate at a White House meeting with the president and Democratic leadership. But the White House later said the president was only “considering” McCarthy’s proposal.

Still, even some Democrats say they are considering rolling back the policy. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told POLITICO on the sidelines of the Reagan National Defense Forum on Saturday that the mandate may no longer be logical.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Smith added that he won’t budge on the issue of reinstating troops who have been kicked out or giving them back pay.

“The one thing that I was adamant about — so were others — is there’s going to be no reinstatement or back pay for the people who refused to obey the order to get the vaccine,” Smith said. “Orders are not optional in the military.”

As of Monday, lawmakers were still ironing out details on the compromise $847 billion defense bill. A vote is expected this week in the House.

Rolling back the policy would be a win for Republicans, who have pressed hard to undo the mandate in recent days. They argue that forcing troops to get the shot is exacerbating the military’s recruiting and retention crisis.

While top DoD officials maintain that the recruiting crisis is caused by other factors — the economy, the Covid-19 pandemic preventing recruiters from physically going to events, and young people’s concerns about the risks of service — others say the vaccine mandate has played a role.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said during a panel at the Reagan forum that the mandate has posed problems for recruiters in certain parts of the country where vaccine misinformation is rampant.

“Where it is having an impact for sure is on recruiting, where in parts of the country there’s still myths and misbeliefs about the backstory behind it,” Berger said, though he noted that the mandate is necessary to keep troops healthy. “There was not accurate information out early on and it was very politicized and people make decisions and they still have those same beliefs. That’s hard to work your way past.”

When asked about the Covid vaccine mandate, top DoD officials point out that recruits are required to get more than a dozen other vaccines in order to join the armed forces. But the politicization of the Covid vaccine has caused headaches for military leaders.

“I would submit that if 33 percent of 16- to 20-year-olds are not going to get the vaccine, the vaccine mandate has to play a role,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), speaking alongside Berger at Reagan forum. “I think we’ve dismissed 7,834 last time I checked. That’s like two Army brigades. That’s a lot of people right when we need people.”