Defense bill rolls back Pentagon’s Covid vaccine mandate

Last updated on December 7, 2022

A compromise defense policy bill released Tuesday night would end the Pentagon’s policy requiring troops to receive the Covid vaccine — and kicking out those troops who refuse it — delivering a win to Republicans who railed against the policy.

A final version of the National Defense Authorization Act included the measure after conservatives threatened to hold up the bill to curtail the vaccine mandate. The policy became a point of contention in talks in recent days between Democratic and Republican leaders over the bill.

The measure defies the wishes of both the Pentagon and the White House, which said in recent days they want to retain the rule that separates troops who don’t receive the vaccine.

Congressional leaders are aiming to bring the defense policy bill up for a vote in the House this week. The Senate will follow and send the measure to President Joe Biden for his signature. The bill would authorize a total of $858 billion, $847 billion of which would be for national defense.

The legislation mandates that the Pentagon rescind the vaccine mandate within 30 days of becoming law.

Republicans argue the mandate, first put in place by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in August 2021, has worsened a recruiting crisis in the military by forcing out thousands of people who declined the shot. Still, roughly 98 percent of the force has been vaccinated, according to the Pentagon.

Though neither defense bill in the House and Senate included a rollback of the mandate — and proposals to eliminate or defang it were defeated by the Armed Services committees — getting rid of the policy became a top priority for Republicans in NDAA talks over the past few weeks. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has pushed for an end to the vaccine mandate, though he’s argued the defense bill should be put off until January over Democratic “wokeism.”

Republicans have also complained that the military services’ rules for granting religious exemptions are too stringent and rarely result in an accommodation.

A bloc of GOP senators, led by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, has threatened to try to stall the bill if they don’t receive a vote on ending the mandate and reinstating troops with back pay.

But the bill stops short of what some hardcore opponents of the vaccine mandate wanted. Specifically, the Pentagon won’t be required to reinstate troops who were drummed out for not getting the shot or give them back pay.

Biden and Austin both oppose ending the mandate as a matter of military readiness, administration officials say.

“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,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday. “He continues to believe that all Americans, including those in the armed forces, should be vaccinated and boosted for Covid-19.”

But the White House hasn’t indicated that Biden, who discussed the matter recently McCarthy, would veto the must-pass defense bill over vacating the policy.

Even some Democrats conceded the time for the mandate may have passed. House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he was open to discussing the policy.

“I was a very strong supporter of the vaccine mandate when we did it,” Smith told POLITICO in an interview on Saturday. “But at this point in time, does it make sense to have that policy from August 2021?”