Democrats make major concession on vaccine mandate
Congress is poised to use the annual defense policy bill to eliminate the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate — a major concession by President Biden’s Democratic allies that helps clear the way to passing the sweeping package before year’s end.
In a compromise with Republicans, House Democrats are allowing language into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that repeals the coronavirus vaccine mandate for U.S. service members a year after it was enacted, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) confirmed to The Hill Tuesday.
The bill, which lays out how an $847 billion Defense Department top line will be allocated in fiscal 2023, is tentatively set to be released as early as Tuesday evening and voted on by the House Thursday, Rogers said.
Asked if he believes the language will stick amid all the last-minute jostling over the bill, Rogers replied: “Yes.”
Republican lawmakers for months have pushed back on the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin first installed in August 2021.
Since then, thousands of active-duty service members have been discharged for refusing the shots, according to the latest Pentagon numbers.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is vying for the Speaker’s gavel in the next Congress, said on Sunday that the NDAA “will not move” unless the mandate for the military is lifted through the bill.
The compromise is effectively a loss for the White House and Pentagon, which have both opposed using the NDAA to repeal the vaccine mandate.
“We lost a million people to this virus,” Austin told reporters traveling with him Saturday, as reported by The Associated Press. “A million people died in the United States of America. We lost hundreds in DOD. So this mandate has kept people healthy.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday strongly supported the Pentagon’s mandate, but also emphasized that the art of compromise means that no side gets everything it wants. For Democrats, he said, that might mean they have to give up the mandate to pass the bigger package.
“It’s a question of how can you get something done,” he told reporters in the Capitol. “We have a very close vote in the Senate, a very close vote in the House, and you don’t just get everything you want.”
The concession by Democrats on a mandate they once championed zealously highlights how attitudes surrounding the vaccines have shifted since the coronavirus struck almost three years ago.
“The politics on that have changed,” said Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas), another member of the Armed Services panel. “If this were 2020, it would be a different story.”
One thing not expected in the bill, however, is language to reinstate troops, sailors and airmen who were discharged or received penalties for declining the vaccine, a provision GOP lawmakers hoped to insert in the legislation.