WASHINGTON – The White House and Pentagon are opposing calls to end the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for troops, as Congress negotiates a military spending plan that some lawmakers insist include a repeal of the shot requirement.
Many Republicans are calling for – and even some Democrats are open to – the Biden Administration’s COVID vaccine requirement being nixed in the pending arms budget legislation, which is expected to be finalized and unveiled this week.
“Congress should take action, and we’re taking action today by saying we will not vote to get on the NDAA – the defense authorization bill – unless we have a vote on ending this military vaccine mandate,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., one of the vaccine order’s main GOP opponents, said at a press conference Wednesday.
But President Joe Biden and his administration see no reason to end the requirement, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday.
Under the COVID shot order, which was handed down by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in August 2021, all service members must get the vaccine or face expulsion for refusing an order.
“Obviously, we’re aware that Congress is considering putting a repeal in the NDAA … of the vaccine mandate,” he said. “Secretary Austin’s been very clear that he opposes the repeal of the vaccine vaccine mandate and the president actually concurs with the Secretary of Defense.”
The NDAA sets defense policy and spending priorities for the 2023 fiscal year. Without its approval, the Pentagon must continue operating on the 2022 version and continuing resolution funds until the matter is resolved. That funding expected to run out on Dec. 16.
To help the legislation move forward, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) in a Friday Politico report said that while he was a “very strong supporter” of the mandate when it was enacted, he is “open” to discussing its removal as congressional leaders continued hammering out the $847 billion bill for a vote this week.
“At this point in time, does it make sense to have that policy from August 2021?” Smith said, according to Politico, noting the “pandemic has winded down.”
House Republican leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy raised the issue with Biden in a meeting last week. Initially, the president was open to discussing the issue, but Austin’s opposition to the measure hardened his opinion, White House Press Secretary Karine Jeanne-Pierre said Monday.
“The president told him that he would consider it, but also made clear that he wanted to consult with the Pentagon,” she said. “Since then … the secretary of defense has recommended retaining the mandate because the COVID vaccination requirement was put in place to keep our service members safe and healthy and prepared for service.”
During Paul’s press conference last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also said he would not vote on to advance the bill “unless we have a vote to change this policy,” citing the military’s struggling recruitment rates .
“It makes no sense to me to discharge thousands of people – for whatever reason and sincere reasons, I’m sure – at a time when we need to get more people in the military.”
But Kirby, a retired Navy admiral and former Pentagon spokesman, said requiring the vaccinations “remains very, very much a health and readiness issue for the force.”
“[Biden] continues to believe that all Americans including those in the armed forces should be vaccinated and boosted for COVID-19,” Kirby said. “As you all have seen for yourself, vaccines are saving lives, including our men and women in uniform.”
The coronavirus vaccines is one of dozens the Defense Department has mandated for troops – something the military has done “nearly since its inception,” according to the Army.
“On Feb. 5, 1777, against the orders of Congress, Washington gave the order to vaccinate the Army against smallpox,” the Army said in a 2018 article. “Only months later, the disease was under control and the incidence of death from smallpox had dropped from around 1 in 12 to 1 in 10,000 Soldiers.”