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House votes to end military COVID vaccine mandate as part of annual defense bill

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CDC
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CDC

The mandate helped ensure the vast majority of troops were vaccinated for COVID, but also raised concerns that it harmed recruitment and retention.

The House passed a bipartisan defense bill on Thursday includes a repeal of a mandate requiring all servicemembers to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

The annual defense bill, headlined by changes expected to strengthen the fight against sexual assault in the military, cleared the House by a 350-80 vote. It next heads to the Senate.

The mandate helped ensure the vast majority of troops were vaccinated for COVID, but also raised concerns that it harmed recruitment and retention.

Military leaders acknowledge that the vaccine requirement is one of several factors contributing to their recruiting struggles. It may dissuade some young people from enlisting, but officials don't know how many. This year the Army missed its recruiting goal by about 25%, while the other services scraped by.

“We have real recruitment and retention problems across all services. This was gas on the fire exacerbating our existing problem," Rogers said. “And the president said, you know, the pandemic is over. It's time for us to recognize that and remove this unnecessary policy."

Republicans, emboldened by their new House majority next year, pushed the effort. With the vast majority of the military already vaccinated, Democrats said they reluctantly agreed to the move in a compromise.

"We believe it is a mistake," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, stopping short of saying President Joe Biden would veto the bill as a result.

The mandate was enacted through an August 2021 memorandum from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. It directed the secretaries of the various military branches to begin full vaccination of all members of the Armed Forces on active duty or in the National Guard or Reserve. They have not been required to also receive boosters.

Austin said this past week that he still supports the vaccine for U.S. troops.

The defense legislation also requires a review of the rate of suicide in the Armed Forces since Sept. 11, 2001, broken down by service, occupational specialty and grade.

The bill also pushes sexual assault cases and other serious crimes such as murder and domestic violence out of the chain of command and under the purview of trained prosecutors.

Sexual assault cases in the military have been plagued with concerns from victims who fear coming forward to see prosecutions led by their own commanders.

The measure also directs a 4.6% pay raise for servicemembers.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.