This year, Congress’s annual defense bill, a must-pass measure that authorizes military spending for the next year, includes a unique provision.
The legislation, known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), lays out more than $840 billion in defense funds and would roll back the military’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate. That mandate, put in place in August 2021 to prevent the spread of coronavirus among service members, is opposed by Republicans, who’ve long railed against vaccine mandates in general. Now the GOP is using the NDAA to seize a win on something they’ve made into a culture war issue.
Republicans’ main argument centers on staffing: They say the military’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate has pushed out thousands of service members in a time when there are already severe labor shortages. Roughly 8,000 active-duty service members have been discharged because they refused vaccination, per US News, but that represents a small fraction of the military’s more than 1 million active-duty service members. As Politico reported, about 98 percent of the military has been vaccinated.
Because the NDAA needs at least 10 Republican votes to pass in the Senate, and will probably need House Republican support given Democrats’ narrow majority in that chamber, the GOP has a key opportunity to secure a policy and messaging win on vaccine requirements. Republican efforts hint, too, at how they’ll continue to leverage Democrats’ need for their cooperation in the new term, when they’ll control the House and the Democrats the Senate.
“That’s the first victory of having a Republican majority, and we’d like to have more of those victories, and we should start moving those now,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Fox News this past weekend, regarding the vaccine mandate rollback.
Why Republicans pushed to overturn the vaccine mandate
The Biden administration, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, has opposed putting the repeal of the vaccine mandate in the NDAA, though it’s stopped short of saying the president won’t sign it if it contains this provision. “A million people died in the United States of America. We lost hundreds in DOD. So this mandate has kept people healthy,” Austin told reporters this past weekend. Additionally, the White House has noted 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 chief priority, claiming that it’s impacted the military’s ability to staff itself. The NDAA represented a prime chance to make a point on this issue, which has been politicized over the past few years, with Republicans arguing mandates represent an un-American assault on personal freedom. As Covid-19 cases have declined across the country, Republican lawmakers have only argued more vocally that there’s less of a need for these requirements.
Republicans’ main grievance is that the vaccine mandate has made it tougher for the military to retain people and recruit new service members, a claim that isn’t backed up by “hard data,” according to Austin. The reasons for recruitment shortfalls are nuanced: As the Associated Press reported, the Army did miss its recruitment target by 25 percent in the last year, with military leaders attributing the gap to a number of factors, including inability to do in-person recruiting because of the pandemic as well as vaccine hesitancy. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, a top military leader, has said vaccine mandates pose some obstacles in recruiting due to misinformation about the Covid-19 shots.
Along with the rescinding of the mandate, Republicans have called for a provision that would reinstate service members who’ve been discharged in the past because of the vaccine mandate, though that has not made it into the bill.
The push against the military vaccine mandate marks the latest effort by the GOP to make vaccine mandates an issue of contention in different must-pass bills. Republicans have repeatedly threatened to hold up government funding unless they could vote on amendments that would defund vaccine mandates the Biden administration has put in place for federal employees and medical workers. Since those mandates were established, GOP lawmakers have frequently tapped into the issue as a way to show their base that they’re protecting people’s liberties.
“It’s an honor to fight for our servicemembers and ensure they are protected from Biden’s COVID vaccine mandate,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) tweeted.
The White House, on the other hand, has criticized Congress’s decision to rescind the vaccine mandate, saying immunizations remain important for maintaining troops’ ability to serve whenever and wherever necessary. “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 spokesperson John Kirby said Monday, per the New York Times.
Republicans want to use these bills to score political points
McCarthy has signaled that Republicans are eager to use legislation like the defense bill to make their case on cultural issues once they assume the House majority in January. He even urged Congress to delay the passage of the defense bill until next year so they could include more provisions that combat the “woke-ism” that he argued Democrats are supporting. Although McCarthy did not specify which policies he was interested in targeting, Politico has reported that this umbrella could include things like initiatives aimed at making the military more diverse.
Republicans’ pushback on this issue indicates how they may use House control next year in a split Congress to secure their priorities on everything from defense policy to appropriations to the debt ceiling. Because several must-pass bills will need House support to advance, the GOP will have multiple opportunities to use their leverage to lobby for provisions like this one. The House is expected to pass the NDAA with the inclusion of the vaccine mandate rollback this week, a move Republicans have described as just the beginning.
“[I]n 28 days, the real work begins,” McCarthy said in a Tuesday statement. “The new House Republican majority will work to finally hold the Biden administration accountable and assist the men and women in uniform who were unfairly targeted by this administration.”