Congress Set to Rescind Vaccine Mandate12/07 06:08
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The COVID-19 vaccine mandate for members of the U.S.
military would be rescinded under the annual defense bill heading for a vote
this week in Congress, ending a directive that helped ensure the vast majority
of troops were vaccinated but also raised concerns that it harmed recruitment
Republicans, emboldened by their new House majority next year, pushed the
effort, which was confirmed Tuesday night when the bill was unveiled. House GOP
leader Kevin McCarthy personally lobbied President Joe Biden in a meeting last
week to roll back the mandate.
Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the House Armed
Services Committee, said the removal of the vaccination requirement was
essential for the defense policy bill to move forward.
"We have real recruitment and retention problems across all services. This
was gas on the fire exacerbating our existing problem," Rogers said. "And the
president said, you know, the pandemic is over. It's time for us to recognize
that and remove this unnecessary policy."
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that Biden told
McCarthy he would consider lifting the mandate but Defense Secretary Lloyd
Austin had recommended it be kept.
"I would remind all of you that the Pentagon has a range of vaccines it has
long required," Jean-Pierre said Monday. "So this is nothing new."
The vaccine provision is one of the more acrimonious differences in the
annual defense bill that the House is looking to wrap up this week and send to
the Senate. It sets policy and provides a roadmap for future investments. It's
one of the final bills Congress is expected to approve before adjourning, so
lawmakers are eager to attach their top priorities to it.
Service members and the Defense Department's civilian workforce would get a
4.6% pay increase, according to a summary of the bill released Tuesday night.
The legislation also requires a review of the rate of suicide in the Armed
Forces since Sept. 11, 2001, broken down by service, occupational specialty and
grade. It also requires the defense secretary to rescind the COVID-19
Military leaders acknowledge that the vaccine requirement is one of several
factors contributing to their recruiting struggles. It may dissuade some young
people from enlisting, but officials don't know how many. This year the Army
missed its recruiting goal by about 25%, while the other services scraped by.
The reasons, however, are complex. Two years of the pandemic shut off
recruiters' access to schools and events where they find prospects, and online
recruiting was only marginally successful. Finding recruits is made more
difficult by the ongoing nationwide labor shortage and the fact that only about
23% of young people can meet the military's fitness, educational and moral
requirements -- with many disqualified for medical issues, criminal records,
tattoos and other things.
A congressional aide familiar with the negotiations but not authorized to
speak publicly said lawmakers supportive of the vaccine mandate concluded that
it had accomplished what it was intended to do by achieving a high rate of
vaccination throughout the service branches, and that meeting the Republican
demands to rescind it would allow other priorities to advance.
The mandate was enacted through an August 2021 memorandum from Austin. It
directed the secretaries of the various military branches to begin full
vaccination of all members of the Armed Forces on active duty or in the
National Guard or Reserve. They have not been required to also receive boosters.
Asked about the matter over the weekend, Austin told reporters he still
supports the vaccine for U.S. troops.
"We lost a million people to this virus," Austin said. "A million people
died in the United States of America. We lost hundreds in DoD. So this mandate
has kept people healthy."
As of early this month, about 99% of the active-duty troops in the Navy, Air
Force and Marine Corps had been vaccinated, and 98% of the Army. Service
members who are not vaccinated are not allowed to deploy, particularly sailors
or Marines on ships. There may be a few exceptions to that, based on religious
or other exemptions and the duties of the service member.
The vaccination numbers for the Guard and Reserve are lower, but generally
all are more than 90%.
More than 8,000 active-duty service members were discharged for failure to
obey a lawful order when they refused the vaccine.
The Marine Corps, which is much smaller than the Army, Navy and Air Force,
vastly outpaces them in the number of troops discharged, with 3,717 as of early
this month. The Army -- the largest service -- has discharged more than 1,800,
while more than 1,600 were forced out by the Navy and 834 by the Air Force. The
Air Force numbers include the Space Force.
The military services came under fire over the past year for approving only
a limited number of religious exemptions to the vaccine requirement.
Military leaders have argued that troops for decades have been required to
get as many as 17 vaccines in order to maintain the health of the force,
particularly those deploying overseas. Recruits arriving at the military
academies or at basic training get a regimen of shots on their first day --
such as measles, mumps and rubella -- if they aren't already vaccinated. And
they routinely get flu shots in the fall.
Service leaders have said that the number of troops who requested religious
or other exemptions to any of those required vaccines -- prior to the COVID
pandemic -- has been negligible.
The politicization of the COVID-19 vaccine, however, triggered an onslaught
of exemption requests from troops. As many as 16,000 religious exemptions have
been or are still pending, and only about 190 have been approved. Small numbers
of temporary and permanent medical exemptions have also been granted.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the Defense Department made a
rational decision in requiring a vaccine because "vaccines are the way you keep
a community safe." But at the end of the day, the bill needs to have bipartisan
support to pass.
"It seems to be very controversial among Republicans in particular. I'm not
sure exactly why. Maybe it's just because the government is telling them that
you need to do this," Hoyer said.
"Obviously," he added, "the more people you have well at any given time, the
better off you are in responding immediately, but there's substantial sentiment
on the other side of the aisle, which we need in the Senate, that believes
differently, so we may have to compromise."
McCarthy said that while he applauded the end of the mandate, the Biden
administration must do more. He said the Biden administration "must correct
service records" and not stand in the way of reenlisting any service member
discharged for not taking the COVID vaccine.
The defense bill will support up to about $858 billion in spending. Within
this topline, the legislation authorizes nearly $817 billion for the Department
of Defense and more than $30 billion for national security programs within the
Department of Energy.
The bill provides funding that's about $45 billion above the president's
budget request to address the effects of inflation, provide additional security
assistance to Ukraine and accelerate other DoD priorities.