U.S. Army / Capt. Daniel Parker

GOP Senators Agitate for Vote To Repeal Vaccine Mandate

Sen. Paul said 20 senators have pledged to vote against moving the defense policy bill forward unless their amendment is brought to the floor.

A group of Republican senators said they would try to block the annual defense policy bill unless they’re allowed to vote on repealing the Defense Department’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

“I think the policy of discharging people simply because they refuse to get this vaccine at this time makes no sense,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday during a press conference at the Capitol. “We in Congress have the ability to change this policy…I want to urge DOD to change your policy. It literally is insane, I think, to drive men and women out of the military at a time [when] we have recruiting shortages because of a refusal to take this vaccine.”

The Pentagon mandated the coronavirus vaccine for all troops in August 2021, just after the Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer vaccine. As of Oct. 25, more than two million service members had been fully vaccinated. The COVID-19 vaccine is just one of the shots required for troops. 

The senators repeatedly questioned the wisdom of the controversial mandate during a military recruiting crisis.

“At a time when the military is struggling to meet their targets for recruitment, the Biden administration is firing soldiers we invested in and trained,” said Rand Paul, R-Ky.

In April, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pushed back against Republican House members who attributed recruitment shortfalls to the vaccine mandate. He said a number of other factors have made recruiting more difficult in recent years, including low unemployment and the lack of recruiter access to high school students during the pandemic.  

At the Wednesday press conference, senators criticized the mandate for forcing out thousands of troops who refused to get the vaccine. More than 8,200 service members have been separated from the military so far, according to data from the service branches. The Marine Corps has ejected 3,584 troops, the Navy, 2,064; the Army, 1,816; and the Air Force and Space Force, 834 troops total.

As of Oct. 13, more than 449,000 troops had been infected with COVID-19. Of those, 2,703 were hospitalized and 96 died, according to the Pentagon.

While a few of the Republican senators Wednesday said they have been vaccinated, they said troops may have health or religious reasons for refusing the shot.

“If you choose to get the vaccine, that's your choice…But if you choose not to get the COVID vaccine, that should also be your choice. That should also be your right,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Congressional leaders this week have been putting final touches to the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, with hopes of putting it up for a vote in the House next week. 

On Wednesday, 13 GOP senators sent a letter to Republican leaders, saying they oppose ending debate on the NDAA unless the Senate votes on an amendment that would ban involuntary separations based on a service member’s COVID-19 vaccine status and reinstate and give back pay to those who have left because of the mandate and want to return. 

Paul—one of the letter’s signatories—said 20 senators in total have pledged to refuse to invoke cloture, a procedural move that is necessary before the Senate can vote on the bill. 

But 41 would be needed to prevent cloture.

“Yes, the NDAA is sacrosanct around here. Sooner or later, you got to start using something when the reason is strong enough to make sure that you're getting something that needs to be fixed and not just go along to get along,” said Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind.

Paul said that most of the senators at the press conference want to vote on the defense bill, “but the NDAA is about setting policy. So we're trying to set policy, a fair and honest policy that's consistent with the science, but also consistent with respecting our young men and women who put their lives forward for us. We should respect and allow them to make some of their own medical decisions.”

Pentagon officials declined to comment on the pending legislation.