The military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate is on the cusp of ending after the Senate approved the annual defense policy bill containing the repeal, sending the bill to President Joe Biden's desk for his signature.
But a last-ditch effort by Republican senators to get troops who have already been discharged under the mandate reinstated with back pay fell short in a largely party-line vote.
For the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, as a whole, the Senate voted 83-11 on Thursday night to approve the bill. The $858 billion measure does everything from endorsing an annual pay raise for troops to reforming the military justice system's prosecution process.
This year's NDAA requires the Pentagon to rescind its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for service members within 30 days of the bill becoming law. The White House has said it opposes repealing the mandate, but has not said Biden would veto the defense bill over the issue.
That means the imminent end of a policy ordered in August 2021 as the pandemic raged that has put tens of thousands of troops in danger of being discharged. But the mandate's demise is not likely to be the end of the matter, with the issue of reinstating discharged troops still unsettled. The military services will also have to decide how to handle unvaccinated troops going forward.
As part of the Senate's debate on the NDAA, the chamber voted on an amendment sponsored by Republican Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Ted Cruz of Texas that would have reinstated the more than 8,000 troops already discharged for refusing the vaccine. The amendment failed 40-54, with Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah and Mike Rounds of South Dakota crossing party lines to oppose the amendment.
Johnson argued the troops should be reinstated because the mandate was "illegal," but Democrats maintained that reinstating service members would send a message that it's OK to disobey orders.
"What we're telling soldiers is, if you disagree, don't follow the order and then just lobby Congress and they'll come along and they'll restore your rank, they'll restore your benefits, they'll restore everything, so orders are just sort of suggestions," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said on the Senate floor. "They're not."
Still, the mandate's repeal is a win for Republicans who have argued the requirement was a case of executive overreach and that discharging thousands of troops amid a recruiting crisis is illogical.
Biden administration officials have said the mandate is still necessary to protect the health of the force since the vaccine is effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalization and death. While daily life has largely gone back to normal after the shutdowns and mandatory masking of the beginning of the pandemic, the virus continues to circulate, and case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths are all trending upward as winter arrives.
But the administration's Democratic allies in Congress acquiesced to Republicans on the issue rather than risk breaking the NDAA's six-decade streak of becoming law.
Biden "will judge the bill in its entirety" when deciding whether to sign the NDAA, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday.
The Pentagon has declined to comment on any preparations it has taken for the end of the mandate, such as whether troops who refuse the vaccine will be deployable, with press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder telling reporters Monday that he won't comment on "potential or pending legislation."
While the GOP amendment to reinstate discharged troops failed, Republicans, who will have a majority in the House next year, are already vowing to continue the fight.
"These heroes deserve justice now that the mandate is no more," House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said in a statement last week. "The Biden administration must correct service records and not stand in the way of reenlisting any service member discharged simply for not taking the COVID vaccine."
Beyond the vaccine mandate repeal, the NDAA includes several major policy changes.
The bill endorses the 4.6% base pay raise for troops requested by the Biden administration, ensuring service members will get their biggest pay bump in 20 years. But low-paid service members will not get an extra bonus on top of that meant to help them cope with inflation, an idea that had been included in an earlier version of the bill.
The bill also expands the eligibility pool for the Basic Needs Allowance for troops facing food insecurity and authorizes reimbursements of up to $4,000 to relocate a pet during permanent change of station moves abroad. And it makes troops stationed in Alaska eligible for special duty pay and travel reimbursements to visit their home state, stipends intended to help make the frigid conditions those service members endure more palatable.
This year's NDAA also builds on major military justice reforms passed in last year's bill. Specifically, this year's bill would give the newly created special trial counsel more authorities in the court-martial process and put more crimes under their purview -- developments that supporters of military sexual assault survivors say finally cap their decade-long fight to remove prosecutorial decisions from commanders.
The bill also seeks to bolster both Ukraine in its ongoing war against Russia and Taiwan in its efforts to prepare for a feared Chinese invasion.
Among the provisions aimed at helping Ukraine, the bill authorizes $800 million for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, the fund for long-term assistance to the Ukrainian military, and notes that the money is allowed to go toward "fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, such as attack, strike, airlift and surveillance aircraft." That differs from an earlier version of the bill that called for the U.S. military to train Ukrainian pilots on U.S. aircraft and authorized funding specifically toward that end.
For Taiwan, in addition to authorizing $10 billion in grants for the island to buy U.S.-made weapons, the bill calls for the Pentagon and the State Department to "establish or expand a comprehensive training program with Taiwan" designed to improve the island's defenses and deepen the relationship between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.