Republicans chipped away at what they say is the Pentagon’s “woke” culture with this year’s must-pass defense policy bill, notching several policy wins against the military vaccine mandate and turning back efforts by congressional Democrats to require women to register for the draft and require additional reporting on political extremism in the ranks.
After weeks of backroom talks, House and Senate negotiators released the final text of the $847 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) this week with little time to spare to shuttle the fiscal 2023 budget authorization bill across the finish line before the end of the lame-duck session.
Negotiators lauded the 4,400-page compromise as proof of Congress’ ability to work across the aisle on a measure that has attracted bipartisan support on the Hill annually for some six decades. But it also sets up some battles with the White House, which has already signaled its unhappiness with the provision ending the COVID vaccine mandate for those in the armed services.
“This year’s agreement continues the Armed Services Committees’ 62-year tradition of working together to support our troops and strengthen America’s national security,” leaders on the House and Senate Armed Services committees said in a joint statement.
The final bill, which historically has come with a string of policy riders attached, includes a 4.6% pay raise for military members, $800 million in additional security assistance for Ukraine, and $10 billion in security assistance to Taiwan to thwart a potential invasion by China.
Democrats and Republicans came together to add $45 billion to the Pentagon budget for 2023 — a rebuke of President Biden’s much lower initial request, which many lawmakers argued failed to keep pace with inflation. The final text also includes a hard-fought green light for the Navy to continue the development of its nuclear-tipped, sea-launched cruise missile program recently scuttled by the administration.
But the negotiations leading up to the final bill were swept up in the culture war that has engrossed the Pentagon under the Biden administration, over such issues as COVID policy, diversity and inclusion programs in the ranks, and the extent of political extremist views among those in uniform.
The battle intensified this summer over language in the Senate version of the bill that would require women to register for the military draft, which Republicans characterized as one more sign the Pentagon was focusing on social issues to the detriment of building up an effective fighting force.
Supporters of a gender-blind draft note the rising number of women already serving in the military and that virtually all military assignments, including combat jobs, are being filled by men and women. But several Republicans raged against the measure.
“Requiring women to register for the draft does not advance our national security objectives, which is the only metric by which the NDAA should be measured,” wrote a group of Republican lawmakers led by Rep. Chip Roy, Texas Republican, in a letter to Senate and House Armed Services Committee leadership in November as negotiations over the final bill neared completion.
“Agreeing to draft our daughters would not only be foolish and ill-advised, but a direct stain on the history of this country,” the lawmakers wrote.
Republicans also emerged from final negotiations claiming victory with a last-ditch effort to repeal President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for members of the military — a policy critics say harms military readiness and has hurt the Pentagon’s ability to meet its recruiting goals.
Congressional Democrats included a Republican-backed measure to repeal in this year’s final bill, dealing a severe blow to the White House. The final version did not include reinstatement or compensation for thousands of active-duty and reserve service members who were ousted for refusing to get the vaccine or whose applications for a religious exemption were denied by the Pentagon.
President Biden sided with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in opposing efforts to lift the mandate, after initially signaling that he would consider the proposal after speaking with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, over the weekend.
“The end of President Biden’s military COVID vaccine mandate is a victory for our military and for common sense,” Mr. McCarthy said shortly afterward. “Last week, I told the president directly: it’s time to end the COVID vaccine mandate and rehire our service members.”
The White House on Wednesday called the repeal a mistake but declined to signal whether Mr. Biden would veto the massive bill as a result.
Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh told reporters Wednesday the Defense Department does not comment on what she called “pending legislation,” but added that Mr. Austin believes the mandate is still needed. Since April, there have been only two deaths in the military from COVID-19, compared to 619 since the start of the pandemic, she noted.
Repealing the mandate “would impact the readiness of the force,” she said. “We have the best and most capable fighting force on the earth.”
But Rep. Adam Smith, the Washington state Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, sounded ready to accept a compromise on the vaccine mandate fight.
“I was a very strong supporter of the vaccine mandate when we did it,” he told Politico Wednesday. “But at this point in time, does it make sense to have that policy from August 2021?”
Republicans also say they staved off other provisions in the NDAA which they view as adding to “woke indoctrination” policies at the Pentagon.
Negotiators booted a measure that requires the Pentagon to produce a report outlining its efforts to snuff out white supremacists and neo-Nazis in the ranks. Republicans say the measure vilifies military members over a situation that the Pentagon‘s own numbers suggest is a relatively minor problem.
The final text nixes “dozens of House provisions related to identity politics at the expense of readiness,” according to Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services committee.
But other Republican priorities failed to pan out as negotiators reached their final compromise, signaling a continuation of the GOP’s culture war crusade once they take control of the House in January.
Republicans failed to overturn a Department of Defense policy that provides travel allowances for military members who travel out of state to receive an abortion. The policy was put in place in the wake of the Supreme Court decision overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, with many military bases located in states that rushed to reinstate tougher restrictions on the practice.
“Taxpayer dollars meant for deterring China and other adversaries should not be squandered on campaign politics,” said Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee who is set to take the gavel from Mr. Smith in the new Congress in 2013.
And while Mr. McCarthy said that while he applauds the move to repeal the COVID mandate, he said he would push for military members ousted over vaccine mandates to have their service reinstated.
“These heroes deserve justice now that the mandate is no more,” he said. “The Biden administration must correct service records and not stand in the way of re-enlisting any service member discharged simply for not taking the COVID vaccine.”
The House is expected to pass the NDAA as soon as this week and the Senate next week. The NDAA has passed without fail every year for more than six decades.
• Staff writer Mike Glenn contributed to this report.