(WASHINGTON) — Republicans are celebrating a major political win as they head into the new Congress with a House majority — forcing Democrats to concede on ending the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate in order to get the must-pass national defense bill across the finish line.
The National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a provision to get rid of the mandate, passed the House on Thursday in a 350-80 vote.
The bill provides $847 billion for national defense spending in fiscal year 2023 — $45 billion more than President Joe Biden’s spending plans. The NDAA now heads to the Senate for a vote before landing on Biden’s desk for his signature.
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy took a victory lap on Tuesday night when the NDAA was revealed to have included a provision to get rid of the mandate, writing on Twitter, “Last week I told Biden directly: it’s time to end your COVID vaccine mandate on our military & rehire our service members.”
“The end of the mandate is a victory for our military & for common sense,” said McCarthy, who is currently in a heated effort to secure support from his conference to become speaker in January.
The White House called the provision being included a “mistake” but didn’t say whether or not Biden would sign the bill once it’s passed. “We continue to believe that repealing the vaccine mandate is a mistake. Making sure our troops are ready to defend this country and prepared to do so that remains the president’s priority and the vaccine requirement for COVID does just that,” National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby said Wednesday.
The White House and Pentagon argue that service members have long been required to get multiples vaccinations other than the COVID vaccine.
Democrat House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said on Tuesday that Democrats needed to agree to the provision in order to get the policy bill passed, calling it “a question of how can we get something done?”
“We are willing to compromise because we want to make sure we fund government. We want to make sure that we get that national defense bill passed. This is a small part of it,” Hoyer said.
The mandate was imposed in August 2021 and requires all U.S. service members to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Other Republicans celebrated the added provision, arguing that the move would particularly help with difficulty in recruiting and retaining service members.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell praised the mandate’s repeal, calling it “a policy which this Democratic administration had stubbornly clung to even as it has clearly undermined readiness and hurt retention.”
Including a repeal of the mandate in House bill may well save the NDAA from procedural calamity when it heads to the Senate. Last week, a large contingent of Senate Republicans threatened to slow or even block the bill over the provision.
“You’re going to kick somebody out of the military who is willing to get shot because they won’t take a shot,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who lead the Senate Republican effort with Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, said at a press conference.
Graham and Braun said they had assembled a coalition of over 20 Republicans who would insist on the opportunity to vote on an amendment to repeal the mandate if a repeal wasn’t included in the bill. A group of this size wouldn’t have been able to block the NDAA, but they could have derailed it for days.
“It ought to be your body and your choice whether you get the vaccine,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who joined the group, said.
It’s likely that if the Senate had brought the vaccine mandate up for a vote it would have passed. There are several conservative Democrats who support repeal of the vaccine mandates.
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