Congress moves to repeal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for troops

The COVID-19 vaccine mandate for members of the US military will be up for a vote in Congress this week under an annual defense bill titled , eliminating a directive that helped ensure most troops get vaccinated. was imposed but also raised concerns that it hurt recruitment. and retention.

The Republicans, buoyed 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 withdraw the mandate.

Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said that removing the vaccination requirement was necessary to advance the defense policy bill.

Rogers said, “We have real recruitment and retention problems in all of the services. This was a fire fueling our existing problem.” “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 on Monday that Mr Biden told McCarthy he would consider lifting the mandate, but Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had recommended keeping it in place.

“I would like to remind all of you that the Pentagon has a number of vaccines it has needed for a long time,” Jean-Pierre said on Monday. “So it’s nothing new.”

The vaccine provision is one of the more glaring differences in the annual defense bill that the House wraps up this week to send to the Senate. It sets policy and provides a roadmap for future investments. It is one of the last bills Congress is expected to approve before it adjourns, so lawmakers have been eager to add their top priorities to it.

Service members and civilian employees of the Defense Department would receive a 4.6% pay raise, according to a summary of the bill released Tuesday night. The law also requires a review of suicide rates in the armed forces since September 11, 2001, broken down by service, occupational specialty and grade. It also requires the Secretary of Defense to rescind the COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Military leaders acknowledge that the need for a vaccine is one of many factors contributing to their recruiting struggles. This may deter some youths from enlisting, but officials do not know how many. The Army missed its recruitment target by around 25% this year, while other services were outnumbered.

However, the reasons are complex. For two years the pandemic shut down recruiters’ access to the schools and events where they find prospects, and online recruiting was only moderately successful. The ongoing nationwide labor shortage and the fact that only 23% of young men can meet the military’s fitness, educational, and moral requirements—disqualifying for medical issues, criminal records, tattoos, and other things—make it difficult to find recruits. has become difficult.

A congressional aide familiar with the negotiations, but not authorized to speak publicly, said lawmakers in favor of the vaccine mandate concluded that it was intended to be accomplished by achieving higher vaccination rates in the service branches, and Republican demands Cancel to complete. This will allow other priorities to move forward.

The mandate was enacted via 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 reserves. They don’t even need to get boosters.

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

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

Earlier this month, about 99% of active-duty servicemen in the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps had been vaccinated, and 98% of the Army. Service members who have not been vaccinated are not allowed to deploy on ships, especially sailors or Marines. There may be exceptions to this based on religious or other exemptions and the service member’s duties.

Vaccination rates are lower for the Guard and Reserves, but generally exceed 90% of all.

More than 8,000 active-duty service members have been 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, far outpaces them in the number of discharged servicemen with 3,717 earlier 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 number of the Air Force includes the Space Force.

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

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

Service leaders have said the number of soldiers who have requested either of the religious or other necessary vaccines — prior to the COVID pandemic — has been negligible.

However, the politicization of the COVID-19 vaccine sparked a flurry of requests for exemptions from soldiers. At least 16,000 religious exemptions have been granted 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, Democrat of Maryland, Steny Hoyer said the Defense Department made a rational decision to require a vaccine because “vaccines are the way you keep a community safe.” But at the end of the day, the bill needs bipartisan support to pass.

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

“Obviously,” he said, “the more people you have at any given time, the better you are at responding quickly, but there is enough sentiment on the other side of the aisle that we need in the Senate that believes differently, So we may have to compromise.”

McCarthy said that while he appreciated the end of the mandate, the Biden administration should be doing more. He said the Biden administration must “correct the service record” and should not stand in the way of re-enlisting any service member discharged for not taking the COVID vaccine.

The defense bill would support up to about $858 billion in spending. Within this topline, the law authorizes approximately $817 billion for the Department of Defense and more than $30 billion for national security programs within the Department of Energy.

The bill exceeds the President’s budget request by nearly $45 billion to offset the effects of inflation, provide additional security assistance to Ukraine, and accelerate other DoD priorities.

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