House Passes $858 Billion Defense Bill Repealing Vaccine Mandate for Troops
WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday overwhelmingly passed an $858 billion defense policy bill that would rescind the Pentagon’s mandate that troops receive the coronavirus vaccine, pushing past the objections of the Biden administration as lawmakers in both parties united behind another huge increase in military spending.
The legislation, negotiated by Republicans and Democrats in both chambers of Congress, would grant a 4.6 percent raise to military personnel and increase the Pentagon’s budget by $45 billion over President Biden’s request, providing $800 million in new security aid to Ukraine and billions to Taiwan. It also includes changes sought by lawmakers to the military’s policy for handling sexual assault cases, a major victory that had long eluded its proponents.
The vote was 350-80, with a substantial number of Republicans joining Democrats in support.
The bill delivers twin repudiations to Mr. Biden’s policies, increasing the defense budget 8 percent overall when he has pressed to keep it nearly flat and moving to reverse a vaccine mandate that his top officials have fought to retain. And with Republicans taking control of the House in January, it essentially locked in the kind of large increases in military budgets that Mr. Biden and many Democrats had hoped to end while they had unified control of government.
John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, called the repeal of the vaccine requirement for troops a “mistake” and blamed Republicans, who he said had politicized the bill. But he stopped short of saying Mr. Biden would veto it.
“Making sure our troops are ready to defend this country and prepared to do so, that remains the president’s priority, and the vaccine requirement for Covid does just that,” Mr. Kirby said. “But Republicans in Congress have obviously decided that they’d rather fight against the health and well-being of those troops, rather than protecting them.”
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Democrats privately said they had little choice but to include the measure after Republicans, notably Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader who is campaigning to be speaker, threatened to tank the bill if it did not include the provision repealing the mandate. Republican votes were needed to pass it, since antiwar Democrats on the left routinely oppose such measures.
The bill also must still make its way through the evenly divided Senate, where the support of at least 10 Republicans is necessary to scale the 60-vote threshold for moving forward with major legislation.
Some Democrats on the Armed Services Committee argued that it was prudent to roll back the policy. Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and the panel’s chairman, said that when the Pentagon instituted the mandate in 2021, it was “absolutely the right policy” and that Defense Department officials had been right to enforce it.
“But as we are here now, in December of 2022, does that August 2021 policy still make sense? Is it still the right policy? We don’t believe that it is.”
Mr. Smith noted that service members who received a first dose of the coronavirus vaccine early in 2021 — offering them little to no protection against new variants now — could continue to serve under the current rules.
Republicans highlighted the provision as a victory, but said they intended to press the issue even further when they took control of the House in January by looking for ways to reinstate or provide back pay for service members who were dismissed for refusing to take the vaccine.
“Make no mistake: This is a win for our military,” Mr. McCarthy said in a statement, adding that when his party takes over, “the real work begins; the new House Republican majority will work to finally hold the Biden administration accountable and assist the men and women in uniform who were unfairly targeted by this administration.”
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 legislation reflects growing determination among lawmakers to increase military spending to counter Russia’s sustained assault on Ukraine and rising fears about Chinese aggression toward Taiwan. It would increase funding for a Ukrainian security initiative above Mr. Biden’s request and establish a defense modernization program for Taiwan, authorizing up to $10 billion in security assistance over the next five years.
And it would approve more than $2.7 billion to bolster the production of munitions, in an effort to counter concerns that the nation’s stockpiles have been depleted by the United States’ attempt to meet Ukraine’s demands for weapons.
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 defense 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.
Military personnel “now have a system of justice that is worthy of their sacrifice,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, who long championed the measure. “We now have a system of justice that is independent, that is transparent and accountable.”
Also included in the legislation is a provision from Senators Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, and John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, that would block federal access to semiconductor products and services made by Chinese firms, including the chip maker YMTC.
And lawmakers agreed to add a measure with bipartisan support that would shield from the public the personal information of federal judges and their families, including identifying information like Social Security and license plate numbers, addresses, schools and places of employment. The legislation gained momentum after the son of Judge Esther Salas was shot and killed at her home in New Brunswick, N.J. by a lawyer who had come looking for her and also shot her husband.
Several provisions that lawmakers had hoped to attach to the must-pass bill were kept out, including legislation giving cannabis companies access to banking institutions; a measure championed by Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, making it easier to build a natural gas pipeline in his state; and an overhaul of the Electoral Count Act.
John Ismay contributed reporting.