A group of Senate Republicans is demanding a vote on ending the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate, threatening to try to hold up the Pentagon's most important annual bill over the issue.
In a letter Wednesday to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his deputies, the senators vowed to vote against advancing the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, when it comes to the Senate floor, which is expected to happen in a couple of weeks.
"The Biden administration's vaccination mandate has forced our nation's young patriotic men and women to choose between their faith and their career, between their medical autonomy and their career," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who organized the letter, said at a news conference Wednesday.
"Congress should take action, and we're taking action today by saying we will not vote to get on the NDAA, the defense authorization bill, unless we have a vote on ending this military vaccine mandate," he added.
Thousands of service members have asked for religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate, often citing concerns about the use of fetal tissue and beliefs about abortion. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines used fetal cell lines from an aborted fetus in the 1970s to test their efficacy but did not use the tissue in production. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine did use fetal cell lines during production.
This summer, the Pentagon approved a version of the vaccine, Novavax, that did not use fetal tissue at any part in its development or production, which would allow service members to meet the mandate.
The letter was signed by 13 Republican senators, but Paul said about 20 senators have committed to supporting the effort to try to block the bill from moving forward.
No one in Republican leadership has voiced their support for the effort, Paul acknowledged, meaning the group is unlikely to reach the 41 senators needed to actually block the NDAA.
Still, the threat throws a minor wrench into the process just as negotiators are finalizing this year's NDAA and also foreshadows potential fights on next year's NDAA when Republicans will have more power when they control the House.
The NDAA is a sweeping, multibillion-dollar package of defense legislation that does everything from endorsing an annual pay raise for service members, to dictating what ships and planes the military can buy, to making reforms on issues such as sexual assault and suicide prevention. It is considered a must-pass bill and typically breezes through Congress with large bipartisan majorities.
Since the Pentagon started requiring service members to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, Republicans have unsuccessfully tried to use the NDAA to reverse the mandate. A GOP amendment to nix the mandate offered at the House Armed Services Committee's June consideration of the NDAA failed, with every Democrat and one Republican opposing the amendment.
Republicans, who have baselessly questioned the efficacy and safety of a vaccine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is the safest, most effective way to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death, argue that discharging potentially thousands of service members who refuse to follow the order to get the vaccine is exacerbating the military's recruiting crisis.
The military mandates more than a dozen other vaccines. The vast majority of service members have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine, but tens of thousands have not. Many have requested religious exemptions that have been denied, and in some cases, courts have blocked the military from taking adverse action against those service members as lawsuits against the mandate are considered.
The amendment the Senate Republicans are demanding would prohibit involuntary separations based solely on COVID-19 vaccine refusal and reinstate anyone who has already been discharged with back pay.
"I will not vote to get on this bill unless we have a vote to change this policy. That's something I've never done before," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said at Wednesday's news conference. "It makes no sense to me to discharge thousands of people, for whatever reason and sincere reasons, I'm sure, at a time when we need to get more people in the military."
The group is threatening to vote against an initial procedural motion known as a cloture vote, and at least one of the letter signers, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said he still planned to support the NDAA when it comes to a final vote.
The House passed its first version of this year's NDAA in July. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved a version of the bill in June, but the full chamber did not take it up, instead going straight to closed-door negotiations, with the House to hash out a compromise version.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., both said this week that they and the committees' top Republicans have finished negotiating all the defense issues and are only waiting to hear from House and Senate leadership on whether any unrelated bills will be attached to the NDAA.
The compromise NDAA is expected to be filed as soon as Friday, with the House expected to take it up next week and the Senate the week after.
Smith on Wednesday downplayed any notion that a demand for a vote on the vaccine mandate could imperil the bill.
"The vote wouldn't matter," Smith said.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.