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Senate passes defense bill rescinding COVID vaccine mandate

U.S. Capitol
Patrick Semansky
/
AP

The bill directs Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to rescind his August 2021 memorandum imposing the vaccine mandate.

A bill to rescind the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for members of the U.S. military and provide nearly $858 billion for national defense passed the Senate on Thursday and now goes to President Joe Biden to be signed into law.

The Senate passed the defense policy bill by a vote of 83-11. The measure also received broad bipartisan support in the House last week.

To win GOP support for the 4,408-page bill, Democrats agreed to Republican demands to scrap the requirement for service members to get a COVID-19 vaccination. The bill directs Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to rescind his August 2021 memorandum imposing the mandate.

The bill provides for about $45 billion more for defense programs than Biden requested and roughly 10% more than last year’s bill as lawmakers look to account for inflation and boost the nation’s military competitiveness with China and Russia. It includes a 4.6% pay raise for servicemembers and the Defense Department’s civilian workforce.

An amendment from Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, went down to defeat, 54-40. It would have allowed for the reinstatement of those service members discharged for failing to obey an order to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and compensate them for any pay and benefits lost as a result of the separation.

“People serving our military are the finest among us. Over 8,000 were terminated because they refused to get this experimental vaccine, and so I’m urging all of my colleagues to support Senator Cruz’s and my amendment,” Johnson said.

But opponents worried about the precedent of rewarding members of the military who disobeyed an order. Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said orders are not suggestions, they are commands.

“What message do we send if we pass this bill? It is a very dangerous one,” Reed said. “What we’re telling soldiers is, ‘if you disagree, don’t follow the order, and then just lobby Congress, and they’ll come along and they’ll restore your rank, or restore your benefits, or restore everything.’”