The House on Thursday overwhelmingly passed this year’s annual defense policy bill, a measure that would rescind the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for troops in a victory for Republicans.
The House cleared the $847 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by a 350-80 vote before sending the bill to the Senate. The bill is expected to easily pass there as soon as next week. Then it will head to President Biden’s desk.
The NDAA has been passed every year for more than six decades.
The White House on Wednesday called the repeal a mistake but declined to signal whether Mr. Biden would veto the massive bill as a result.
After weeks of backroom talks, negotiators released the bill’s final text this week, with little time to spare to shuttle the crucial bill across the finish line this session of Congress ends.
Negotiators lauded the 4,400-page compromise as proof of Congress’ ability to work across the aisle on a measure that traditionally has attracted bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. It also sets up some battles with the White House, which has signaled its unhappiness with the provision ending the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for troops.
“We are at a critical point in our nation’s history — it’s today’s investments in our defense that will ensure the success of our war fighters on the battlefields of the future,” said Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
He said the bipartisan agreement will allow the U.S. to maintain its advantage over China.
“From boosting deterrence to securing our supply chain, this legislation demonstrates strength in the face of China’s threats,” Mr. Rogers said.
The bill, which historically has come with a string of often-unrelated amendments, includes a 4.6% pay raise for military members, $800 million in additional security assistance for Ukraine and $10 billion in security assistance to Taiwan to thwart a potential Chinese invasion.
Lawmakers came together to add $45 billion to the Pentagon budget for 2023 — a rebuke of Mr. Biden’s much lower initial request, which many lawmakers argued failed to keep pace with inflation. The final text also includes a hard-fought green light for the Navy to continue the development of its nuclear-tipped, sea-launched cruise missile program recently scuttled by the administration.
The negotiations were also swept up in the culture war that has engrossed the Pentagon under the Biden administration, over such issues as COVID-19 policy, diversity and inclusion programs in the ranks, and the extent of political extremist views among those in uniform.
Republicans launched a tough last-ditch stand to repeal Mr. Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for members of the military. Critics say the policy harms military readiness and hurts the Pentagon’s ability to meet its recruiting goals.
Congressional Democrats included a Republican-backed measure to repeal the vaccine mandate in this year’s final bill, dealing a severe blow to the White House. The final version did not include reinstatement or compensation for thousands of active-duty and reserve service members who were ousted for refusing to get the vaccine or whose applications for a religious exemption were denied by the Pentagon.
Mr. Biden sided with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in opposing efforts to lift the mandate. He initially signaled that he would consider the proposal after speaking with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, over the weekend.
“The end of President Biden’s military COVID vaccine mandate is a victory for our military and for common sense,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Last week, I told the president directly: It’s time to end the COVID vaccine mandate and rehire our service members.”
Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh told reporters that the Defense Department does not comment on “pending legislation,” but she said Mr. Austin believes the mandate is still needed. The military has reported only two deaths since April, compared with 619 since the start of the pandemic, she noted.
Repealing the mandate “would impact the readiness of the force,” she said. “We have the best and most capable fighting force on the Earth.”
Rep. Adam Smith, Washington Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, sounded ready to accept a compromise on the vaccine mandate.
“I was a very strong supporter of the vaccine mandate when we did it,” he told Politico on Wednesday. “But at this point in time, does it make sense to have that policy from August 2021?”
Mr. McCarthy applauded the move to repeal the COVID-19 vaccine mandate and said he would push for military members ousted over vaccine mandates to have their service reinstated.
“These heroes deserve justice now that the mandate is no more,” he said. “The Biden administration must correct service records and not stand in the way of reenlisting any service member discharged simply for not taking the COVID vaccine.”
• Joseph Clark can be reached at email@example.com.
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