Congress is poised to use the annual defense policy bill to eliminate the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate — a major concession by President Biden’s Democratic allies that helps clear the way to passing the sweeping package before year’s end.
In a compromise with Republicans, House Democrats are allowing language into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that repeals the coronavirus vaccine mandate for U.S. service members a year after it was enacted, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) confirmed to The Hill Tuesday.
The bill, which lays out how an $847 billion Defense Department top line will be allocated in fiscal 2023, is tentatively set to be released as early as Tuesday evening and voted on by the House Thursday, Rogers said.
Asked if he believes the language will stick amid all the last-minute jostling over the bill, Rogers replied: “Yes.”
Republican lawmakers for months have pushed back on the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin first installed in August 2021.
Since then, thousands of active-duty service members have been discharged for refusing the shots, according to the latest Pentagon numbers.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is vying for the Speaker’s gavel in the next Congress, said on Sunday that the NDAA “will not move” unless the mandate for the military is lifted through the bill.
The compromise is effectively a loss for the White House and Pentagon, which have both opposed using the NDAA to repeal the vaccine mandate.
“We lost a million people to this virus,” Austin told reporters traveling with him Saturday, as reported by The Associated Press. “A million people died in the United States of America. We lost hundreds in DOD. So this mandate has kept people healthy.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday strongly supported the Pentagon’s mandate, but also emphasized that the art of compromise means that no side gets everything it wants. For Democrats, he said, that might mean they have to give up the mandate to pass the bigger package.
“It’s a question of how can you get something done,” he told reporters in the Capitol. “We have a very close vote in the Senate, a very close vote in the House, and you don’t just get everything you want.”
The concession by Democrats on a mandate they once championed zealously highlights how attitudes surrounding the vaccines have shifted since the coronavirus struck almost three years ago.
“The politics on that have changed,” said Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas), another member of the Armed Services panel. “If this were 2020, it would be a different story.”
One thing not expected in the bill, however, is language to reinstate troops, sailors and airmen who were discharged or received penalties for declining the vaccine, a provision GOP lawmakers hoped to insert in the legislation.
Instead, lawmakers on the House and Senate Armed Services committees are planning report language for the bill that allows the Pentagon to evaluate service members affected by the mandate, Rogers said.
“There’s no statutory language, but there’s report language that tells the [Defense Department] to ascertain everybody that’s been adversely affected by the vaccine mandate and what it would take to make them whole and get that to us next year. Then we can decide if we want to try to do that or not,” he said.
“Some people aren’t going to want to come back to the military, but if they do, what would that look like? How many people are we talking about?”
The issue of COVID-19 vaccines was just one among a minefield of contentious topics facing negotiators as they race to pass the sweeping defense authorization bill this month.
Another potential policy hurdle, a proposal by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) aimed at speeding up the approval process for energy infrastructure permits, also appears unlikely to make it into the final defense bill if lawmakers want to get it across the finish line.
The White House had promised Manchin a vote on his permitting reforms in return for his support on a massive tax, health care and climate bill enacted earlier in the year. And Democratic leaders in the White House and both chambers have pressed this week to include the provision in the defense bill.
Yet that plan appears to have hit a wall in the form of progressive lawmakers, who are threatening to oppose the rule that would allow the defense bill to make it to the floor if the energy policies are included.
Given the Democrats’ slim majority and the fact that Republicans almost never vote for rules put forward by Democrats, even if they support the underlying bill, the maneuver would probably only require a few Democratic defectors to succeed.
“It does not appear to me that there’s the votes to sustain that,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told The Hill. “If it was up to me at this point it would not be in, but it’s not up to me, but it seems to me like there’s not the support for it.”
Smith said, however, that the ultimate decision on whether to include the provisions rests with House leadership and that it hasn’t yet been made.
Among the Democrats who have said they would vote against the rule if permitting reform is included are Reps. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Jesús García (Ill.), Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.).
“I think the numbers are there,” Garcia said. “I would think our opposition might cause them to reconsider.”
And the list of defectors could grow.
“I don’t want to say categorically that I would vote against the rule, but if it’s the Manchin shit sandwich, made worse to appease Republicans, of course I’m not going to choke that down,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, indicated she believes the progressive effort would be enough to kill the permitting reform’s chances in the NDAA.
“Typically Republicans don’t vote for the rule, some of them might, but I can’t imagine there would be enough to counter the number of progressives that have already told me they’re voting against the rule,” she said. She added the caucus was still taking stock of how large the opposition to the rule could be.
As the barriers fall, top Democrats are already predicting that the House will ultimately pass the package with broad bipartisan support by the end of the week.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think there will be any issue that would derail the NDAA from being passed,” said Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), a senior member of Armed Services panel. “We passed it 60 years in a row, and I think this year will be no exception.”
Updated at 5:53 p.m.