The military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate would be repealed under a compromise must-pass annual defense bill unveiled Tuesday night, ending the requirement that all active-duty and part-time troops get the shot.
The National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which typically passes with large bipartisan majorities, would give the Pentagon 30 days to "rescind the mandate that members of the Armed Forces be vaccinated against COVID-19," according to the text of the bill.
The provision will put an end to a policy that top military officials say is still necessary to ensure the health of the force but that Republican lawmakers railed against as an overreach of executive power and a danger to the military's ability to be ready for a war. Tens of thousands of troops who have refused to get vaccinated faced discharge.
But the NDAA is not likely to be the end of fights related to the mandate, which was ordered in August 2021 by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as the virus gripped the U.S. and the world. The bill does not reinstate the service members who have already been discharged -- something Republicans are vowing to continue pushing for and that could spark a new phase of legal challenges.
"Make no mistake: This is a win for our military," House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a statement Tuesday night. "But in 28 days the real work begins -- the new House Republican majority will work to finally hold the Biden administration accountable and assist the men and women in uniform who were unfairly targeted by this administration."
The vaccine reined in the virus, which killed more than 1 million Americans, and is for now among more than a dozen shots that are mandatory for those who join the military. The vast majority of service members are already vaccinated, though a small percentage have challenged the requirement, often on religious grounds.
Rather than reinstate discharged troops, the report accompanying the bill, which does not carry the weight of law, says lawmakers "would support efforts by the secretary to ensure that the military departments have a consistent process in place to consider such requests for correction of military records and reinstatement as long as all other eligibility requirements are met for service."
Austin issued the shot mandate after the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval, rather than emergency approval, to Pfizer's version of the vaccine. The FDA later gave full approval to the Moderna shot, too. Many troops had voluntary access to the vaccines before the order.
While the military already mandates vaccines for troops, including flu, hepatitis and smallpox, the requirement for the COVID-19 shot was immediately politicized by Republicans spreading unfounded fear about the vaccine's efficacy and safety.
So, while the vast majority of service members have been vaccinated, tens of thousands have resisted.
Many of the vaccine refusers have requested religious exemptions and often cite concerns about the use of fetal tissue, even though all major religions have supported vaccination. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines used cell lines derived from a fetus aborted decades ago during early testing but not production, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine used the cell lines during production.
The Pentagon this summer approved the use of the Novavax vaccine, which didn't use fetal cell lines at any point, but that did not appear to move the needle on getting the holdouts vaccinated.
Even before the proposed NDAA repeal, court challenges had tied up the services' efforts to vaccinate troops. Every branch of the military except for the Army is currently under a court order preventing them from discharging service members who have applied for religious exemptions.
Republicans also argued that discharging thousands of troops at a time when the military is facing a recruiting crisis was illogical. That argument got a boost this weekend when Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said the mandate has harmed recruiting -- though he homed in on vaccine misinformation as the underlying reason.
"There was not accurate information out early on and it was very politicized, and people make decisions and they still have those same beliefs. That's hard to work your way past, really hard to work," Berger told Military.com during a conference in California on Saturday.
Republicans had tried several times to repeal the mandate through the NDAA, but were previously unsuccessful.
The latest push started last week when about a dozen Senate Republicans vowed to vote against advancing this year's NDAA if they did not get a vote on repealing the mandate.
While the effort initially appeared futile since the group lacked enough senators to actually block the bill, it gained momentum after Democratic House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith of Washington told news outlet Politico on Saturday he was open to ending the mandate.
After Smith's comments, as well as comments from McCarthy on Fox News suggesting President Joe Biden agreed to lift the mandate during a closed-door meeting last week, Austin and White House officials repeatedly defended its continued importance.
"Secretary Austin has been very clear that he opposes the repeal of the vaccine policy, and the president actually concurs with the secretary of defense," National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Monday. "He continues to believe that all Americans, including those in the armed forces, should be vaccinated and boosted for COVID-19."
Austin added Tuesday that he has "not seen any hard data that directly links the COVID mandate to an effect on our recruiting."
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro also warned Tuesday that repealing the mandate would create "two classes of citizens in our services," deployable and non-deployable, according to Defense One. During the early days of the pandemic, COVID-19 sidelined major ships such as the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt as the virus ripped through the crews.
Notably, though, the White House statements have not come with a threat to veto the NDAA over repealing the mandate.
The House is expected to pass the bill Wednesday evening, followed by the Senate next week.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.