Congressional Republicans were unsuccessful in multiple bids Wednesday to undo or weaken the military’s mandate that troops and Defense Department personnel get vaccinated against the coronavirus, moves that Democratic lawmakers dismissed as political theater and junk science.
At least 3,400 troops have already been involuntarily separated from service for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine in recent months.
For months, Republican lawmakers have decried the mandate as unfair and potentially jeopardizing military readiness, despite Pentagon leaders insisting the dismissals have had no effect.
On Wednesday, during debate in the House Armed Services Committee over the annual defense authorization bill, GOP members offered seven separate coronavirus amendments, including one to force Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin from his leadership post if he refuses to repeal the vaccine mandate.
“When our leadership fails to reassess the situation, when they blindly say, ‘I made a decision and it’s right and I’m sticking with it come hell or high water,’ I think we have a duty to respond,” said Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss. “We need to reevaluate whether natural immunity plays a role, whether age does, do that based on the facts and the science and the data.”
Republican lawmakers argued that troops should be exempt for religious reasons, for presumed natural immunity, or simply because they don’t want it.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., called the suggestions “disturbing” and said they could undermine military discipline and leadership.
“This is not politically motivated,” he said. “It is a decision about the health and wellness of the force … all this nonsense about it being politically motivated is just an excuse to hide from the actual debate.
“What we learned from this disease is that being vaccinated significantly protects you against hospitalization and death. When you sign up for the military, you have to follow orders, and there was ample reason for these orders to be given.”
Provisions rejected included banning defense leaders from dismissing troops, dismissing military academy cadets, allowing defense contractors to skip federal mandates for vaccines, restoring individuals already booted from the ranks for vaccine refusal and awarding back pay to those separated service members.
Lawmakers from both sides sparred over the medical value of the vaccines, the danger of COVID-19 to the American and military population, and the ability of troops to refuse orders.
Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, unsuccessfully urged his colleagues to “protect these young men and women from recklessly being put in danger when the government is making decisions that are not in their best interest.”
Smith and other Democrats argued the opposite, saying that overruling reasonable health decisions by government and military leaders could result in chaos in the ranks.
Senate Armed Services Committee officials did not include any major changes to the vaccine mandate in their draft of the annual authorization bill, which passed last week.
The House committee did include language in their bill mandating a briefing by Pentagon officials to Congress on current vaccine exemption rules, and whether those policies are being carried out by military leaders in a fair and consistent basis.
House Republicans will have another chance to try and change the vaccine rules when the authorization bill draft comes to the chamber floor for a full vote, likely next month.
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.