The final version of the fiscal 2023 defense authorization bill is likely to rescind Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III’s August 2021 memo ordering COVID-19 vaccines for most troops, a source familiar with the matter said Monday.
Ending the requirement, under which servicemembers who aren’t fully vaccinated are subject to discharge, has been a top priority of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and other senior Republicans in both chambers. McCarthy raised the issue with President Joe Biden in a meeting last week and reiterated over the weekend that the mandate should be repealed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Republicans argue the requirement has led to unfair discharges for about 3,400 servicemembers, undermining morale and impairing recruitment and retention at a time when they are under stress. But top Pentagon and White House officials viewed the requirement as an important element of ensuring military readiness and troops’ health.
“After careful consultation with medical experts and military leadership, and with the support of the President, I have determined that mandatory vaccination against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is necessary to protect the Force and defend the American people,” Austin wrote in his memo last year.
Austin’s directive ordered the military service secretaries to “immediately begin full vaccination of all members of the Armed Forces under DoD authority on active duty or in the Ready Reserve, including the National Guard, who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19.”
A bipartisan agreement among House and Senate negotiators will repeal that directive. But the new NDAA will not dictate what course the Pentagon must take going forward, the source said.
Congressional leaders are aiming to introduce the final compromise NDAA version as soon as Tuesday, with House floor action possible later in the week.