The sweeping defense policy bill that repeals the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate and endorses a 4.6% pay raise for troops is now law after President Joe Biden signed the legislation Friday.
While Pentagon and White House officials have repeatedly said they oppose repealing the vaccine mandate since they believe it still necessary to protect the health of the force, the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, is considered a vital bill for the military since it authorizes a host of special pay and bonuses, military construction projects, training exercises and other routine necessities for service members. Further, the bill passed Congress with bipartisan majorities that were large enough to overcome a hypothetical veto from Biden.
"The Act provides vital benefits and enhances access to justice for military personnel and their families, and includes critical authorities to support our country's national defense, foreign affairs, and homeland security," Biden said in a signing statement Friday.
While Biden's signing statement, a decree presidents sometimes issue to declare their objections to bills they sign, takes issue with several provisions of the bill on constitutional grounds, it makes no mention of the vaccine mandate repeal.
Republican lawmakers have been pushing for the repeal of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate since Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered it in August 2021. They have used a series of different arguments, including that the mandate tramples on religious liberties, though the leaders of many major religions have publicly encouraged vaccination, and that the shot is experimental even though two brands have been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
More than 8,000 service members have been discharged under the mandate, though all the services have been under court orders in recent months largely barring the discharge of any troops who had applied for religious exemptions. The latest court ruling came down just this week, when a federal judge in Texas enjoined the Army from taking adverse action against six soldiers and four West Point cadets who applied for religious exemptions.
Pentagon officials have so far declined to detail how they will handle the end of the mandate, with press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder telling reporters as recently as Tuesday that he didn't "want to get ahead of pending legislation."
"We will comply with the law when it's the law," Ryder added at a press briefing.
Republicans, who will control the House next year, have vowed they will continue fighting to reinstate service members who were discharged, though a Senate amendment to the NDAA that would have done so failed with every Democrat and four Republicans opposing.
Beyond the vaccine mandate, the NDAA makes several major policy changes. Among them, the bill builds on an overhaul of the military justice system passed in last year's NDAA by giving the newly created special trial counsel more authorities in the court-martial process and putting more crimes under their purview.
This year's NDAA also 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 starting Jan. 1, and expands the eligibility pool for the Basic Needs Allowance meant for troops facing food insecurity.
"For 62 consecutive years, the NDAA has served as the foundation of our national security priorities, fulfilling Congress' sacred obligation to provide for the common defense of the American people," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said in a statement Friday. "This year's bipartisan bill builds on this tradition by nurturing the underlying sources of our national strength: our people, our economy, our alliances and partnerships, and our democracy."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.