Congressional Republicans are renewing their push to reinstate troops who were discharged over their refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19 when the shot was required by the military services.
Republicans last year successfully repealed the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate despite the Pentagon's support for the requirement but fell short in their effort to get the more than 8,000 troops discharged under the mandate reinstated with back pay.
Republicans vowed to continue fighting this year to reinstate those service members and took initial steps as the new congressional session begins by reintroducing bills with that aim in both the House and Senate.
"Our military continues to feel the effects of the Biden administration's reckless, misguided and now-prohibited vaccine mandates," said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate. "I'm glad that we were able to remove the COVID-19 vaccine mandate last Congress, but there is more work to do."
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 690 troops, Pentagon civilians, contractors and dependents have died from the virus, according to Defense Department statistics, part of the total 1.1 million who have died in the U.S. Pentagon officials have touted that just two service members have died since the vaccine mandate was put in place and said those who are unvaccinated have been more than three times more likely to be hospitalized than those who are vaccinated. One study estimated that the vaccine has saved 3.2 million lives in the U.S. in two years of being offered to the public.
The Republican bill, dubbed the Allowing Military Exemptions, Recognizing Individual Concerns About New Shots, or AMERICANS, Act, has 12 Republican co-sponsors in the Senate, and the House companion legislation was introduced by Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, also introduced a similar but separate bill in the House last week.
As part of the annual defense policy bill passed in December, Congress forced the Pentagon to repeal the COVID-19 vaccine mandate Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin first imposed in August 2021 even as the Biden administration argued the mandate was still necessary to protect the health of the force.
The department followed Congress' order and formally rescinded the policy earlier this month. But it has continued to resist GOP calls to reinstate discharged service members or provide them back pay.
"We are not pursuing, as a matter of policy, back pay for those who refused the vaccine," Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said at a briefing last week. "At the time that those orders were refused, it was a lawful order."
A bill to give troops booted over the vaccine mandate their jobs back could fare better in the House this year than last year now that Republicans have a majority in the chamber.
But Democrats continue to hold a majority in the Senate, likely eliminating the chances of any such bill making it to President Joe Biden's desk. When the Senate voted last year whether to reinstate COVID-19 vaccine refusers, every Democrat and four Republicans opposed the proposal and the measure failed.
Republicans have argued that it doesn't make sense to keep thousands of otherwise qualified people out of the military at a time when it is having trouble recruiting new service members and that reinstating those who were discharged is a matter of justice since, in some cases, they were denied religious exemption requests.
But Democrats have said letting those people back into the military would undermine good order and discipline because the mandate was a lawful order.
"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 last year. "They're not."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.