WASHINGTON — Nearly half of the Senate Republican caucus is threatening to block the annual defense authorization bill unless Congress agrees to abolish the military’s coronavirus vaccine mandate for troops and reinstate all those dismissed under the policy.
“The vaccination mandate has forced our nation’s young patriotic men and women to choose between their faith, their medical autonomy and their careers,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., at a press conference Wednesday. “At a time when the military is struggling to meet targets for recruitment, the administration is firing soldiers we invested in and trained.”
Whether the senators opposing the vaccine mandates have the numbers to block the authorization bill in the Senate remains unclear. So far, no senior Senate Republican leaders have signed onto the plan. If no Democrats back the effort, the group will need 41 GOP votes to halt consideration of the NDAA.
Officials from each of the military services have required all troops to receive a Covid-19 vaccination or risk dismissal from the armed forces, but the courts intervened when religious objectors to the vaccine argued their requests for waivers have not been dealt with fairly. The program has been in limbo since, although new service members must still be vaccinated.
According to the latest data released by the Defense Department, about 3,300 Marines, 1,800 soldiers, 1,800 sailors and 900 airmen have been booted from the ranks for refusing to get vaccinated.
The group of 20 GOP senators is demanding a full chamber vote on their proposal to dump the vaccine mandate, reinstate those dismissed troops and award them back pay. The lawmakers did not have any estimates on how many individuals would return to their jobs and how much the provisions would cost.
“Our recruiting goals are way short,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “”We need more people in the military, not less. And this mandate is going to result in thousands, tens of thousands of able bodied Americans who are well-trained leaving the military because they chose not to get vaccinated.”
The lawmakers involved in the anti-vaccine effort argued that because most troops are young and healthy, the vaccine provides little to no value to their long-term fitness.
Defense Department officials have said because of the quick-spreading nature of coronavirus, the vaccine is needed to limit the number of individuals in the Defense Department — both military and civilian — who will face serious health consequences from COVID-19 illnesses.
They have also framed the vaccine requirement as a readiness issue since the rapid spread of the illness could incapacitate a military unit.
More than 98 million cases of COVID-19 infection have been recorded in America since the start of the pandemic in spring 2020. At least 1,075,000 have died from complications related to the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Federal officials have worked in recent months to convince the public that the vaccine is safe and needed to stop the spread of coronavirus. Military officials have also argued that troops are required to receive a host of other vaccines in order to stay in the ranks, and the Covid-19 one should not be treated differently.
Senators opposing the mandate said the military is not considering a host of religious exemptions to the coronavirus vaccines, thereby infringing on troops’ personal freedoms.
The national defense authorization bill is seen as a must-pass measure for Congress each year. It sets a host of spending policies and priorities for the military, including the annual military pay raise and a host of new program starts, and has passed annually for more than five decades.
Both Senate and House leaders have said they are close to a final compromise on this year’s bill. The House is expected to bring a draft to the full chamber floor next week.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.