- The National Defense Authorization, massive Pentagon funding bill, includes an amendment that would end the Covid-19 vaccine mandate for U.S. troops.
- The overwhelming majority of Marines, soldiers and sailors have been vaccinated against Covid, but several thousand service members have been kicked out for refusing the shots.
- Republicans have pushed hard for the mandate's repeal.
The House of Representatives is expected to vote this week on a sweeping defense bill that would repeal the Pentagon's Covid-19 vaccine mandate for U.S. troops.
The amendment to eliminate the vaccine mandate is included in the National Defense Authorization Act, a massive $858 billion bill that funds the Pentagon and sets defense policy priorities.
The legislation requires the Pentagon to end the vaccine mandate for services members within 30 days of the bill's enactment. Republicans insisted on including the repeal in the 4,000 page bill, backing Democrats into a corner because they need to pass the legislation this month to make sure troops receive their pay and benefits on time after the new year.
The bill will head to the Senate for a vote before landing on President Joe Biden's desk. Though Congress is expected to pass the legislation, the White House has not signaled publicly whether Biden will sign the bill into law.
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday that Biden believes repealing the vaccine mandate is a mistake, but the president would look at the bill holistically.
"Republicans in Congress have decided they'd rather fight against the health and well being of our troops than protecting them and we believe that is a mistake," Jean-Pierre said.
Biden told congressional leaders last week that he would consider a repeal of the mandate but wanted to consult with the Pentagon first, Jean-Pierre told reporters on Monday. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had raised the issue during the meeting.
But John Kirby, White House national security spokesman, said the president and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin both oppose scrapping the mandate.
"Secretary Austin's been very clear that he opposes the repeal of the vaccine mandate and the president actually concurs with the secretary that he continues to believe that all Americans including those in the armed forces should be vaccinated and boosted for COVID-19," Kirby told reporters on Monday.
"Vaccines are saving lives and including our men and women in uniform," Kirby said. "So this remains very, very much a health and readiness issue for the force."
Republican lawmakers have claimed that the Covid vaccine mandate is creating recruiting issues for the armed forces. But the defense secretary on Tuesday said he hasn't seen any evidence of that.
"I've not seen any hard data that directly links the Covid mandate to an affect on our recruiting," Austin told reporters at a press conference.
But Gen. David Berger, the highest ranking officer in the Marine Corps, said the vaccine mandate has created recruiting issues in certain parts of the country, particularly the South. Berger defended the mandate during a panel at the Regan National Defense Forum earlier this month as necessary to keep the force healthy. But he said misinformation has shaped many people's views of the shots.
"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 really hard to work," Berger said, according to Military.com.
The defense secretary imposed the vaccine mandate in August 2021 as the more severe delta Covid variant was swept the country. The military mandate came ahead of a broader push by the Biden administration to make sure the massive federal workforce was protected against the virus.
The overwhelming majority of Marines, soldiers and sailors have been vaccinated against Covid, but several thousand service members have been kicked out for refusing the shots. The Pentagon has discharged about 3,700 Marines, 1,800 soldiers and 2,000 sailors for not abiding by the vaccine mandate.