• Tue. Jan 31st, 2023

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Congress Poised to Repeal Covid Vaccine Mandate for Troops in Military Bill

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers unveiled an $858 billion military policy bill on Tuesday night that would terminate the Pentagon’s mandate that troops receive the coronavirus vaccine, a move that the Biden administration has resisted but that came after Republicans threatened to block the bill without it.

The decision to scrap the mandate, the product of negotiations between Senate and House leaders in both parties, was a victory for Republicans in a dispute that had added a politically charged and highly emotional issue to the annual military policy debate.

Top Republicans, especially Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader who is campaigning for speaker, have made getting rid of the mandate a top priority in the bill, arguing that the requirement amounted to federal overreach and eroded military readiness.

The bill, which authorizes a pay raise for American troops and is considered one of just a few pieces of must-pass legislation, perennially attracts a long list of proposals from lawmakers hoping to attach their pet project or policy.

This year, the measure, which would increase the Pentagon’s budget by $45 billion over President Biden’s request and include $800 million in new security aid to Ukraine and billions to Taiwan, became snarled by disputes over a host of unrelated issues. Top lawmakers haggled over legislation allowing cannabis companies access to banking institutions; a measure championed by Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, making it easier to build a natural gas pipeline in his state; and even an overhaul of the Electoral Count Act.

Facing threats from competing constituencies in the final weeks of the year and squeezed by razor-thin majorities in both chambers, congressional leaders chose not to include those proposals in the final bill.

But they could not avoid a debate over rescinding the vaccine mandate, and despite pressure from the White House and the defense secretary to keep it, Democrats appeared to have bowed to intense Republican pressure to allow its elimination.

In a statement on Tuesday night, Mr. McCarthy said he had made a personal appeal to Mr. Biden at the White House last week to lift the mandate, and called the move “a victory for our military and for common sense.” And he urged the Biden administration to go further, and re-enlist service members who had been discharged for refusing to take the vaccine.

“These heroes deserve justice now that the mandate is no more,” Mr. McCarthy said, though the proposal will still have to pass both chambers of Congress and be signed by Mr. Biden to become law.

A group of G.O.P. senators who pushed for the move, including Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, issued a triumphant statement praising the decision to include the provision “to protect service members” from the coronavirus vaccine. Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rick Scott of Florida had also pushed hard for the repeal.

In the days before the bill was finalized, as the number of Republicans threatening to oppose the bill without the rollback piled up, Democrats on Capitol Hill appeared ready to swallow the measure rolling back the vaccine mandate.

“I was a very strong supporter of the vaccine mandate when we did it,” Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told Politico, adding, “But at this point in time, does it make sense to have that policy from August 2021?”

Biden administration officials have said they opposed a repeal.

“Vaccines are saving lives, including our men and women in uniform. So this remains very, very much a health and readiness issue for the force,” John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said on Monday.

Service members are required to be vaccinated against a whole host of viruses. Starting in basic training, recruits receive shots protecting them from hepatitis A and B; the flu; measles, mumps and rubella; meningococcal disease; polio; tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis; and chickenpox in addition to Covid-19, according to the Defense Health Agency, which oversees health care for the armed forces.

Those sent overseas are required to receive additional vaccinations based on where they are sent and any special duties they may perform, such as shots to protect against anthrax, rabies, typhoid and yellow fever.

Across the armed services, a vast majority of service members are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and nearly all are at least partially vaccinated, according to data released by the various branches.

The U.S. military has a history of vaccinating troops. It stretches back to Gen. George Washington requiring variolation, a type of inoculation, for his soldiers at Valley Forge in an effort to protect them against smallpox, according to Dr. John W. Sanders, a professor of medicine at Wake Forest University and an infectious disease specialist who served 23 years on active duty as a Navy doctor.

Calling the Covid vaccines “remarkably safe and effective,” Dr. Sanders said active-duty personnel take vaccines that pose greater risks — such as for yellow fever, smallpox and measles, mumps and rubella — “and do not bat an eye.”

“Being appropriately trained, equipped and vaccinated is part of having a strong military, and if people are in uniform, they need to take these vaccines,” he said.

The debate has unfolded as coronavirus mandates remain an intense point of contention, even after Mr. Biden declared in September that “the pandemic is over,” and as misinformation about the pandemic, particularly about vaccines, continues to spread, particularly on far-right platforms.

As time runs short for lawmakers to complete a hefty list of items in a lame-duck session, lawmakers had also considered adding other measures to the defense bill, including a bipartisan measure to clarify the role of Congress and the vice president in counting electoral votes to confirm the results of presidential elections.

They weighed adding the permitting proposal by Mr. Manchin, a centrist who demanded it over the summer as the price of his vote for the party’s signature climate, health and tax policy law.

The measure would ease the permitting process for wind, solar and fossil fuel infrastructure.

But congressional leaders, for now, appear to have punted on both issues. Mr. Manchin’s bill, in particular, faced a blockade of opposition from both liberals in the House and Republicans in the Senate, who are still bitter over the deal Mr. Manchin brokered that paved the way for passage of the climate, health and tax policy law.

David McCabe and Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.