Congress Clears Military Bill Repealing Vaccine Mandate for Troops
WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday gave final approval to an $858 billion military policy bill that would rescind the Pentagon’s mandate that troops receive the coronavirus vaccine, defying President Biden’s objections and sending to his desk a bill that paved the way for a massive increase in spending on the military.
The vote was 83 to 11, an overwhelmingly bipartisan margin that reflected support in both parties for boosting the Pentagon’s budget by $45 billion over Mr. Biden’s request, as lawmakers in both parties argued that the protracted war in Ukraine and an emboldened China had changed the nation’s security posture.
With Republicans set to take control of the House in January, it essentially locked in the kind of large boost to the military budget that Mr. Biden and many Democrats had sought to avoid while they had unified control of government.
Negotiated by Democrats and Republicans in both chambers, the legislation would grant a 4.6 percent raise to military personnel, and provide $800 million in new security aid to Ukraine and billions to Taiwan. It includes changes sought by lawmakers to the military’s policy for handling sexual assault cases, a major victory that its proponents had labored for years to secure.
Republicans essentially forced Mr. Biden to stomach the vaccine mandate repeal over his administration’s strong objections. Led by Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader who is campaigning to be speaker, Republicans threatened to tank the bill if it did not include the provision eliminating the requirement. That left Democrats, some of whom have privately nursed concerns about how the mandate affected recruitment efforts, with little choice but to accept it.
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The Pentagon forcefully opposed the repeal. John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, had accused Republicans pushing the repeal of fighting “against the health and well-being of those troops, rather than protecting them.”
Republicans who had led the effort to rescind the vaccine rule took a victory lap on Thursday.
“Service members should be focused on bolstering our national defense, not political mandates,” said Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee.
Service members are required to be vaccinated against a whole host of viruses. Starting in basic training, recruits receive shots protecting them from hepatitis A and B; the flu; measles, mumps and rubella; meningococcal disease; polio; tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis; and chickenpox in addition to Covid-19, according to the Defense Health Agency, which oversees health care for the armed forces.
Across the armed services, a vast majority of service members are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and nearly all are at least partially inoculated. But thousands of troops were discharged for refusing to take the vaccine.
The bill builds on reforms to the military justice system passed last year, removing commanders from decisions in the prosecution of sexual assault cases and vesting those powers to independent prosecutors. Last year’s military policy bill stripped military commanders of most of their authority to prosecute sexual assaults and myriad other criminal cases, but it allowed them to keep key decision-making powers.
Senators rejected a proposal by Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, to relax the permitting requirements for building fossil fuel energy infrastructure, including the controversial Mountain Valley gas pipeline in his home state.
Liberals and Republicans have repeatedly rejected the legislation in recent months, but Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, has pushed the permitting bill to fulfill his end of a deal he had made with Mr. Manchin over the summer: If the West Virginian agreed to cast his crucial tiebreaking vote to enact Mr. Biden’s climate and health care bill, they would work to ensure passage of Mr. Manchin’s energy bill.
Although they have so far not delivered on their end of the deal, it is possible that the Democratic leaders might still try to add the energy permitting legislation to a sprawling spending bill needed to fund the government before the end of the year.
Mr. Biden weighed in on Thursday with a statement calling on Congress to pass the energy bill.
Senators also rejected a Republican proposal by Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin to reinstate and provide back pay to service members who were dismissed by the military for refusing to take the coronavirus vaccine.
Coral Davenport contributed reporting.