GOP senators call to eliminate military COVID-19 mandate from defense bill

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
Peter Afriyie
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) discusses the Russia is a State Sponsor of Terrorism Act at a press conference on Wednesday, September 14, 2022.

A group of Republican senators on Wednesday threatened to withhold their votes to advance the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) if the chamber doesn’t vote on whether to end the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for members of the military.

Led by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the group said the military is struggling with recruiting and the exodus of thousands for not getting vaccinated hasn’t helped matters.

“Congress should take action. And we’re taking action by saying we will not vote to get on the NDAA … unless we have a vote on ending this military vaccine mandate,” Paul told reporters at a press conference at the Capitol. 

Paul said 20 Senate Republicans have signed a letter signaling they will vote against cloture on the NDAA. Forty-one senators are needed back the effort in order to grind NDAA action to a halt, and the Kentucky Republican acknowledged their efforts will go nowhere without support from GOP leadership. No member of Republican leadership has thus far jumped on board, with Paul saying their response has been “agnostic.” 

But Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who also signed the letter, asked of supporters of the vaccine mandate, “Is this really a hill worth dying on? I think not.”

Graham noted that he and Paul rarely agree on issues related to defense, joking that it might be a sign of “end times.” Paul added that Graham has never voted against cloture on an NDAA package in the past. 

The Department of Defense required military members to become vaccinated in August 2021. In February, the military began discharging members for declining to receive the vaccine. According to the Pentagon in April, that count had reached roughly 3,400 service members, with a small amount being allowed to continue with the various military branches via religious or medical waivers. 

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) argued that the via the vaccine rule, the Biden administration is attempting to “purge” conservative-leaning members from the military. 

The group of senators also said the possible amendment vote should be held at a simple-majority threshold, meaning that 51 senators could put the bill over the top to get attached to the overall proposal. 

A delay on NDAA passage would further compress the legislative calendar in an already-packed lame-duck session. Lawmakers also need to pass either a stopgap spending bill or an omnibus package to continue to fund the government. Spending is set to expire on Dec. 16, with chatter that a one-week extension until just before Christmas may be needed to allow members to finish their work. 

Both congressional chambers cleared separate versions of the NDAA earlier this year. A final package is expected to be rolled out early next week. According to Politico, Senate and House negotiators have agreed to authorize $847 billion in the annual defense bill, a $45 billion increase from the Biden administration’s initial ask. 

Tags Lindsey Graham Mike Lee Rand Paul

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