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A vote in Congress this week would repeal the order for a COVID-19 vaccine for members of the U.S. military under the annual defense bill, ending a directive that helped ensure most troops were vaccinated but also raised concerns that it hurt recruiting. and hold.
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 last week to bring back the mandate.
Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said removing the vaccination requirement was essential for the defense policy bill to move forward.
“We have real recruitment and retention issues across all services. It’s exacerbating our existing problem with fire gas,” Rogers said. “And the president said, you know, the epidemic is over. It is time for us to recognize and remove this unnecessary policy.”
White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre said Monday that Biden told McCarthy he would consider lifting the mandate, but Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recommended keeping it.
“I will remind all of you that the Pentagon has had the necessary vaccine for a long time,” Jean-Pierre said Monday. “So it’s nothing new.”
The vaccine provision is one of the more stark differences in the annual defense bill that the House is looking to wrap up and send to the Senate this week. It sets policy and provides a roadmap for future investments. It’s one of the final bills Congress is expected to approve before it adjourns, so lawmakers are eager to align their top priorities.
Service members and Defense Department civilians would get a 4.6% pay raise, according to a summary of the bill released Tuesday night. The law requires a review of suicide rates in the armed forces since September 11, 2001, broken down by service, occupational specialty and grade. This would require the Secretary of Defense to rescind the COVID-19 vaccination order.
Military leaders acknowledge that the vaccine requirement is one of several factors contributing to their recruiting struggles. That may discourage some young men from enlisting, but officials don’t know how many. The Army has missed its recruitment target by about 25% this year, while other services have scraped by.
The reasons, however, are complex. Two years of the pandemic cut off recruiters’ access to schools and events where they could find prospects, and online recruiting was only marginally successful. An ongoing nationwide labor shortage and only 23% of young men meeting the military’s fitness, educational and moral requirements — making it even more difficult to recruit — many of whom are ineligible for medical issues, criminal records, tattoos and other factors.
A congressional aide familiar with the discussions but not authorized to speak publicly said lawmakers backing the vaccine mandate concluded that it had accomplished what it was intended to do by inoculating the service branches at higher rates, and that it met Republican demands. Withdrawal will allow it to prioritize other priorities.
The order was enforced by an August 2021 memorandum from Austin. It also directed the secretaries of the various military branches to begin fully vaccinating all members of the armed forces on active duty or in the National Guard or Reserve. They also do not need to take a booster.
Asked about the issue over the weekend, Austin told reporters he still supports vaccines for U.S. troops.
“We’ve lost a million people to this virus,” Austin said. “A million people died in the United States. We have lost hundreds in the DoD. So this order kept people healthy.”
As of early this month, about 99% of active-duty troops in the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps and 98% of the Army have been vaccinated. Unvaccinated service members, especially sailors or marines, are not allowed to deploy. There may be some exceptions to this based on religious or other exemptions and duties of the service member.
Vaccination rates for the Guard and Reserve are lower, but generally all are over 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, far outpaced them with 3,717 discharges earlier this month. The Army – the largest service – made more than 1,800 layoffs, while more than 1,600 were forced by the Navy and 834 by the Air Force. Air Force numbers include Space Force.
The military services have come under fire over the past year for allowing only a limited number of religious exemptions to require vaccines.
Military leaders have argued for decades that soldiers should receive 17 vaccines to maintain the health of troops, especially those deployed overseas. Recruits arriving at military academies or basic training receive 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 said the number of soldiers who requested exemptions for religious or other required vaccines — before the COVID pandemic — was negligible.
The politicization of the COVID-19 vaccine, however, has sparked an onslaught of exemption requests from soldiers. As many as 16,000 religious exemptions have been granted or are still pending and only 190 have been approved. A small number of temporary and permanent medical exemptions are also granted.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mo. Said the Department of Defense made a logical decision to require a vaccine because “vaccines are one way you can protect a community.” But at the end of the day, bills need to be bipartisan. Support to pass.
“It seems to be very controversial, especially among Republicans. I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe it’s just because the government is telling them you have to do it,” Hoyer said.
“Obviously,” he added, “the more people you have at any given time, the better you can respond, but there’s enough sentiment on the other side of the aisle, which we need in the Senate, that believes differently. So we may have to compromise.”
The defense bill would help cover about $858 billion in spending. Of that top line, the law authorizes about $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 more than the president’s budget request to address the effects of inflation, provide additional security assistance to Ukraine and accelerate other DoD priorities.
Associated Press staff writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.