Congress is set to repeal the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for troops

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Covid-19 vaccine mandate for members of the U.S. military would be lifted under the annual defense bill headed for a vote this week in Congress, ending a directive that helped ensure that the major the majority of troops were vaccinated, but concerns were also raised that it hurt recruitment and retention.

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 at 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 issues across all the services. This was fuel to the fire that exacerbated our existing problem,” Rogers said. “And the president said, you know, the pandemic is over. It’s time we recognized that and removed 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 keeping it.

“I want to remind you all that the Pentagon has a series of vaccines that it has long demanded,” Jean-Pierre said Monday. “So it’s nothing new.”

The vaccine provision is one of the more serious differences in the annual defense bill, which the House wants to finish this week and send to the Senate. It sets policy and provides a roadmap for future investment. It’s one of the final bills Congress is expected to pass before adjournment, so lawmakers are eager to make it their top priority.

Service members and the Defense Department’s civilian workforce would get a 4.6% pay raise, according to a summary of the bill released Tuesday night. The legislation also requires a review of the suicide rate in the Armed Forces since 11 September 2001, broken down by service, professional specialty and grade. It also requires the Secretary of Defense to rescind the COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Military leaders acknowledge that the vaccine requirement is one of several factors contributing to their recruitment struggles. That may deter some young people from signing up, but officials don’t know how many. This year, the Army missed its recruitment target by about 25%, while the other services scraped by.

However, the reasons are complex. Two years of the pandemic shut down 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 persistent 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 due to medical issues, criminal records, tattoos and other things.

A congressional aide familiar with the negotiations but not authorized to speak publicly said lawmakers who supported the vaccine mandate concluded that it had accomplished what it set out to do by achieving a high vaccination rate throughout the service departments, and meeting Republican demands to repeal it would allow other priorities to advance.

The mandate was passed through an August 2021 memo 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 receive boosters as well.

Asked about the matter over the weekend, Austin told reporters that he still supports the vaccine for US troops.

“We lost a million people to this virus,” Austin said. “A million people died in the United States. We lost hundreds in the DoD. So this mandate has kept people healthy.”

As of the beginning of this month, about 99% of 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, especially 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 rate for the Guard and Reserve is lower, but generally all are more than 90%.

More than 8,000 active duty service members were discharged for disobeying a lawful order when they refused the vaccine.

The Marine Corps, which is much smaller than the Army, Navy and Air Force, far outnumbers them in the number of troops deployed, 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 of the Navy and 834 from the Air Force. Air Force numbers include the Space Force.

The military services have come under fire over the past year for only approving a limited number of religious exemptions from the vaccine requirement.

Military leaders have argued that for decades troops have been required to get as many as 17 vaccines to maintain the health of the force, especially those deployed overseas. Recruits arriving at military academies or basic training are given a regimen of shots on their first day — such as measles, mumps and rubella — if they haven’t already been vaccinated. And they routinely get flu shots in the fall.

Service leaders have said the number of troops requesting religious or other exemptions for any of the required vaccines — before the COVID pandemic — has been negligible.

However, the politicization of the COVID-19 vaccine sparked a flurry of requests for exemptions from troops. As many as 16,000 religious dispensations have been or are still pending, and only about 190 have been approved. A small number 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 to require a vaccine because “vaccines are the way you keep a community safe.” But ultimately, the bill must have bipartisan support to pass.

“It seems to be very controversial among Republicans especially. I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe it’s just because the government tells them you have to do this,” Hoyer said.

“Obviously,” he added, “the more people you’re comfortable with at any given time, the better you are at reacting immediately, but there’s a significant vibe across the aisle that we need because in the Senate, who believe differently. , so we may have to compromise.”

McCarthy said that while he welcomed the end of the mandate, the Biden administration must do more. He said the Biden administration “needs to correct service records” and not stand in the way of re-enlisting a service member discharged for not taking the COVID vaccine.

The defense bill would support up to about $858 billion in spending. Within that top line, 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 is 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.

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Associated Press staff writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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