A bill to repeal the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for members of the US military and provide nearly $858 billion to national defense passed the House Thursday as lawmakers considered one of the last items on their agenda..
The bill provides about $45 billion more for defense programs than President Joe Biden had requested, marking the second straight year that Congress significantly surpassed his request as lawmakers scramble to boost the country’s military competitiveness with China and Russia.
The House passed the bill by a vote of 350 to 80, with 45 Democrats and 35 Republicans voting against the bill.
It will now go to the Senate, where it is expected to pass easily, and then to the President to be signed into law.
To gain bipartisan support for the bill, Democrats agreed to the Republican demandsfor service members to get a COVID-19 vaccination. The bill instructs Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to withdraw his impose the mandate. Just days earlier, he expressed his support for maintaining the mandate.
Rep. Adam Smith, Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told colleagues the decision to impose the vaccine mandate was the right one at the time.
“It saved lives and ensured that our force was as prepared as possible for the pandemic,” Smith said.
But he said the guideline only required the first vaccination and that protection has now worn off.
“It’s time to update the policy,” Smith said.
Republicans said the mandate hurt hiring and retention efforts. Representative Mike Rogers, a top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said he plans to examine who was disadvantaged by the mandate in the next Congress “so we can try to revisit that and make them as desirable as possible.”
More than 8,000 active duty members wereto follow a legal order when they refused the vaccine.
“Some of the people who have left won’t want to come back,” said Rogers, who will become chairman of the Armed Services Committee during the next Congress.
Smith said he opposed efforts to reward those military personnel who disobeyed a military order.
“Orders are not optional in the US military,” Smith said. “And if Congress expresses the opinion that they are, I can’t imagine anything that would more significantly undermine good order and discipline within our military.”
Military leaders have argued that for decades, troops have been required to receive as many as 17 vaccines to maintain the health of the armed forces, particularly those deployed abroad. Recruits arriving at the military academies or basic training are given a regimen of shots — such as measles, mumps, and rubella — on their first day if they haven’t already been vaccinated. And they routinely get flu shots in the fall.
Service leaders have said the number of troops requesting religious or other exemptions for any of those required vaccines prior to the COVID pandemic was negligible.
However, the politicization of the COVID-19 vaccine sparked a flurry of requests for exemptions from troops. As many as 16,000 religious exemptions are or are pending, and only about 190 have been approved. Small numbers of temporary and permanent medical waivers have also been issued.
While the repeal of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate has drawn a lot of attention, it takes up one paragraph of what is a 4,408-page bill.
Defense policy legislation is critical in shaping the future of the military. It establishes the maximum number of military personnel authorized to be part of the various branches of the military. It authorizes money for specific major weapons programs and sets wages and benefits. This year’s bill authorizes money to support a $4.6% pay increase for military members and the Defense Department’s civilian workers.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Thursday that he hoped they would reach a bipartisan agreement and act “quite quickly.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre defended the Pentagon’s COVID vaccination policy, but said Biden would review the bill “in its entirety.”
“What we think has happened here is that the Republicans in Congress have decided that they would rather fight against the health and well-being of our troops than protect them,” said Jean-Pierre. “And we believe it’s a mistake.”