An emboldened Republican Party claimed its first post-midterm victory in the House on Thursday, as lawmakers approved an annual defense policy bill that rolls back the Biden administration’s coronavirus vaccine mandate for military personnel — and GOP leaders vowed future consequences for it ever having existed in the first place.
“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,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a statement, promising “to finally hold the Biden administration accountable and assist the men and women in uniform who were unfairly targeted.”
The $858 billion legislation, which the House approved by a vote of 350 to 80, authorizes funding for the military, Pentagon, and related national defense programs, and has passed Congress every year for over six decades. It now heads to the Senate for a vote before President Biden — who had wanted to spend $45 billion less on defense next year — can sign it into law.
A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to say Wednesday whether Biden’s signature would be in doubt as a result of the vaccine rollback, though the House’s veto-proof majority vote Thursday reduces the likelihood of such a showdown. The president and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin both opposed the reversal, arguing that it would be detrimental to troops’ readiness — but in the end, they and their defenders on Capitol Hill were unable to overcome the GOP’s resolve to block action on the defense authorization measure absent the change.
Vaccine mandates are not the only realm in which the bill challenges the administration’s national security policy. The measure also orders new oversight measures for Ukraine military assistance, requiring both the Pentagon and a consortium of inspectors general to report to Congress on how such weapons are being tracked — and where there may be shortfalls in guaranteeing their security.
The measures in the defense bill enjoy bipartisan support, but come amid growing clamor from the GOP for more stringent measures, largely driven by lawmakers who have criticized the scale of U.S. support for Ukraine. On Tuesday one of those members, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), won the support of all Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — but only the Republican members — for a measure demanding a full audit the aid program. Notably, the measure did not promise specific consequences if the audit revealed shortfalls.
The defense bill also seeks to expand the portfolio of foreign governments eligible for U.S. military assistance programs, creating new privileges for Taiwan to tap up to $2 billion annually for training and weapons purchases plus $1 billion in presidential drawdown authority — the designation that allows the United States to ship foreign allies materiel directly from U.S. stocks.
The move is part of a drive to gird up Taiwan’s defenses for potential conflict with China, an initiative that has gained momentum in the aftermath of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) visit to Taiwan earlier this year, which angered China and elicited diplomatic protests and displays of military might from Beijing.
It is unclear for now if the bill’s provisions will be implemented, as congressional negotiators are deadlocked over how to fund the federal government. With a Dec. 16 deadline nearing and no breakthroughs on the horizon, GOP leaders are calling for a short-term funding measure and resuming the debate in the new year.
In limited cases, the delay could play to the administration’s favor. The bill defies Biden administration determinations to retire two key nuclear programs, the megaton-plus capacity B83-1 gravity bomb and the tactical submarine-launched cruise missile, or SLCM-N, as part of Pentagon efforts to reconfigure and modernize the nuclear arsenal. The defense bill pumps another $25 million into researching the SLCM-N and prohibits federal funds from being used to decommission more than 25 percent of the B83-1 bombs in the active arsenal, until well after the Pentagon completes a detailed study of its available resources to strike hardened, underground targets.
But Pentagon leaders have warned that, overall, a continuing resolution would be detrimental to the Defense Department’s ability to contend with multiple escalating threats around the globe — and sustain an adequately supported force at a time of increasing recruitment challenges.
A desire to maintain the U.S. military’s edge against emboldened adversaries helped keep together the veto-proof coalition supporting the bill despite several last-minute obstacles to its passage. After Democrats capitulated to Republican demands to end the vaccine mandate, the Congressional Black Caucus sought to attach voting-rights legislation — passed in the House but never taken up in the Senate — to the defense bill. Without such a vehicle the voting-rights legislation will expire at the end of this congressional session, but the effort failed.
Others backed the defense bill despite their furor over other omissions, including provisions that would have extended the Special Immigrant Visa program for another year. The program has been a key means of extracting Afghans who assisted the United States over its 20-year war and remain in danger of retaliation by the Taliban.
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), who had backed the measure, called “deeply wrong” the move by congressional leaders to strip out a plan to extend the SIV program, saying it represents “the worst, most nativist undercurrents in our society” and damages to the United States’ standing around the world.
“We are sending the message that we actually don’t keep our promises,” Moulton said in a statement. “For decades to come, our young troops will be asked, ‘Why should we trust you?’ when they ask our allies for help.”