WASHINGTON — 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 House on Thursday as lawmakers scratch off one of the final items on their yearly to-do list.
The bill provides for about $45 billion more for defense programs than President Joe Biden requested, the second consecutive year Congress significantly exceeded his request, as lawmakers seek to boost the nation’s military competitiveness with China and Russia.
The House passed the bill by a vote of 350-80. It now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass easily, then to the president to be signed into law.
To win bipartisan support for the 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. Only days earlier he voiced support for keeping the mandate in effect.
Rep. Adam Smith, Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told colleagues that the decision to impose the vaccine mandate was the right call at the time.
“It saved lives and it made sure that our force was as ready as it could possibly be in the face of the pandemic,” Smith said.
But, he said the directive only required the initial vaccination and by now that protection has worn off.
“It’s time to update the policy,” Smith said.
Republicans said the mandate hurt recruiting and retention efforts. Rep. Mike Rogers, top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said he intends in the next Congress to examine who was adversely affected by the mandate, “so we can try to revisit that and make them whole to the extent desirable.”
More than 8,000 active-duty service members were discharged for failure to obey a lawful order when they refused the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Some of the folks who have moved on are not going to want to come back,” said Rogers, who will become chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the next Congress.
Smith said he opposed efforts to reward those service members who disobeyed a military order.
“Orders are not optional in the United States military,” Smith said. “And if Congress expresses the opinion that they are, I cannot imagine anything that would more significantly undermine the good order and discipline within our military.”