WASHINGTON (AP) — The COVID-19 vaccine mandate for members of the U.S. military would be rescinded under the annual defense bill for a vote this week in Congress, ending a directive that has allowed to ensure that the vast majority of troops have been vaccinated but also raised concerns that this will harm recruitment and retention.
Republicans, emboldened by their new House majority next year, pushed the effort, which was confirmed Tuesday night when the bill was unveiled. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy personally lobbied President Joe Biden at a meeting last week to rescind the mandate.
Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said scrapping the vaccination requirement was essential for the defense policy bill to move forward. .
“We have real recruitment and retention issues across all departments. It was gas on the fire that exacerbated our existing problem,” Rogers said. “And the president said, you know, the pandemic is over. It’s time for us to recognize this and remove this unnecessary policy. »
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that Biden had told McCarthy he would consider lifting the mandate, but Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had recommended that he be preserved.
“I remind you all that the Pentagon has a range of vaccines that it has needed for a long time,” Jean-Pierre said Monday. “So it’s not new.”
The vaccine provision is one of the most acrimonious differences in the annual defense bill the House is seeking to wrap up this week and send to the Senate. It sets policy and provides a roadmap for future investments. It’s one of the last bills Congress is expected to approve before adjourning, so lawmakers are eager to attach their top priorities to it.
Military and Defense Department civilian workers would get a 4.6% wage increase, according to a summary of the bill released late Tuesday. The legislation also requires a review of the suicide rate in the armed forces since September 11, 2001, broken down by service, occupational specialty and rank. It also demands that the Secretary of Defense rescind the COVID-19 vaccination mandate.
Military leaders recognize that the requirement for vaccines is one of many factors contributing to their recruiting difficulties. This may dissuade some young people from enlisting, but officials do not know how many. This year, the Army missed its recruitment target by about 25%, while the other services missed the mark.
The reasons, however, are complex. Two years of the pandemic have cut off recruiters’ access to schools and events where they find prospects, and online recruiting has seen only marginal success. Finding recruits is made more difficult by the nationwide labor shortage and the fact that only about 23% of young people can meet the military’s physical fitness, education and training requirements. of morality – many being disqualified for medical issues, criminal records, tattoos and other things.
A congressional aide familiar with the negotiations but not authorized to speak publicly said pro-vaccine mandate lawmakers concluded it had accomplished what it was meant to do by achieving high immunization rates across all branches of service, and that responding to Republican demands to cancel it would allow other priorities to move forward.
The mandate was signed into law through an August 2021 memorandum from Austin. He ordered the secretaries of the various military branches to begin full vaccination of all members of the armed forces on active duty or in the national guard or reserve. They were not required to receive reminders as well.
Asked about it over the weekend, Austin told reporters he still supports the vaccine for US troops.
“We’ve lost a million people to this virus,” Austin said. “A million people have died in the United States of America. We’ve lost hundreds to the DoD. This mandate has therefore allowed people to stay healthy.
As of early this month, about 99% of active duty Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps troops had been vaccinated, and 98% of the Army. Service members who are not vaccinated are not allowed to deploy, especially sailors or Marines on ships. There may be some exceptions to this, based on religious or other exemptions and the duties of the service member.
Vaccination rates for the Guard and Reserve are lower, but generally all above 90%.
More than 8,000 active duty service members have been discharged for failing to comply with a lawful order when they refused the vaccine.
The Marine Corps, which is much smaller than the Army, Navy and Air Force, far exceeds them in the number of discharged soldiers, with 3,717 at the start of this month. The army – the largest service – laid off more than 1,800, while more than 1,600 were expelled by the navy and 834 by the air force. Air Force figures include Space Force.
The military services have come under fire over the past year for approving only a limited number of religious exemptions from the vaccination requirement.
Military leaders have argued that troops have for decades had to get as many as 17 vaccines to maintain the health of the force, especially those deployed overseas. Recruits arriving at military academies or basic training receive a regimen of vaccines on day one — such as measles, mumps and rubella — if they are not already vaccinated. And they get regular flu shots in the fall.
Service chiefs said the number of soldiers who applied for religious or other exemptions to any of these required vaccines — before the COVID pandemic — was negligible.
The politicization of the COVID-19 vaccine, however, has sparked a wave of demands for exemptions from troops. As many as 16,000 religious exemptions have been or are still pending, and only around 190 have been approved. A small number of temporary and permanent medical exemptions have also been granted.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the Department of Defense made a rational decision in requiring a vaccine because “vaccines are the way to protect a community.” But ultimately, the bill must have bipartisan support to pass.
“It seems to be very controversial among Republicans in particular. I don’t know exactly why. It might just be because the government is telling them you have to,” Hoyer said.
“Obviously,” he added, “the more healthy people you have at any given time, the better off you are in responding immediately, but there is substantial sentiment across the aisle , which we need in the Senate, which believes differently , so we may have to compromise.
The defense bill will support up to about $858 billion in spending. Under this, the legislation authorizes nearly $817 billion for the Department of Defense and more than $30 billion for national security programs within the Department of Energy.
The bill provides approximately $45 billion in additional funding to the President’s budget request to address the effects of inflation, provide additional security assistance to Ukraine, and accelerate other DoD priorities .
Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.
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