The House of Representatives has come to an agreement to put language in the annual defense funding bill that would end the Pentagon’s coronavirus vaccine mandate for service members against President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s stances.
“As the bill is currently written, the [National Defense Authorization Act] directs the Secretary of Defense to end the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for active duty and reserve component servicemembers,” a source familiar with the NDAA told the Washington Examiner on Tuesday.
While the bill will remove the mandate, it will not reinstate the thousands of service members who have already been separated from the military for their refusal to get the vaccine without an approved exemption, Fox News reported. Lawmakers on both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are also looking to include language that would permit the department to look into the status of the service members affected by the mandate.
The inclusion of the measure to end the mandate was announced a day after the White House reiterated Biden’s support for the mandate’s continued implementation.
“Secretary Austin’s been very clear that he opposes repeal of the vaccine mandate, and the president actually concurs with the secretary of defense,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday. “He continues to believe that all Americans, including those in the armed forces, should be vaccinated and boosted for COVID-19.”
Hours before Kirby’s remarks, however, White House deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton said the president told House House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the favorite to be next House speaker, that he “would consider” lifting the mandate. She also noted that Austin “has recommended retaining the mandate, and the president supports his position.”
Days earlier, Austin said, “We lost a million people to this virus. … A million people died in the United States of America. We lost hundreds in DOD. So this mandate has kept people healthy,” adding, “I support continuation of vaccinating the troops.”
The vaccine mandate has been a frequent target of criticism, especially in conservative circles, since its implementation late last summer. Thousands of troops have been separated as a result of the mandate, while the branches have faced scrutiny over the few religious exemptions that were granted. Conservatives have argued that the military shouldn’t be kicking out otherwise good service members amid a recruiting crisis, though Pentagon officials have maintained that the issue affects readiness and that the COVID-19 vaccine is no different than their other vaccine requirements.
“Broadly speaking, from a Department of Defense standpoint, we are a warfighting organization. So, the health and readiness of our force is always going to be paramount to ensure that our forces are ready and able to conduct their mission,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said last week. “So, vaccinations, whether it’s COVID, influenza, anthrax, those kinds of things, we’re going to ensure that our forces are properly vaccinated to be able to carry out their wartime mission.”