The White House said Monday it would not support Republican efforts to repeal President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for members of the military, setting up a showdown as Congress takes up this year’s must-pass defense policy bill.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that Mr. Biden has sided with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in opposition to repealing the mandate, ending speculation that the president would consider Republicans’ proposal after speaking with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, over the weekend.
“Secretary Austin’s been very clear that he opposes the repeal of that vaccine mandate, and the president actually concurs with the secretary that we need to continue to believe that all Americans, including those in the armed forces, should be vaccinated and boosted for COVID-19,” Mr. Kirby said.
More than a dozen Senate Republicans said last week that they would oppose a procedural vote to advance the $847 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) unless the chamber votes on a measure to dismantle the mandate and reinstate those who have been separated from the military for refusing the jab.
Mr. McCarthy also told the Fox News’ program “Sunday Morning Futures” that the NDAA “will not move” unless the mandate is lifted.
The White House said over the weekend that the president was considering repealing the mandate after speaking with Mr. McCarthy.
The move by Republicans on Capitol Hill to end the mandate followed calls by 21 Republican governors that Congress “take immediate action to remove and prohibit” the vaccine mandate through the NDAA or a separate measure.
“The Biden vaccine mandate on our military creates a national security risk that severely impacts our defense capabilities abroad and our state readiness here at home,” the governors, led by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, wrote in a letter to the top leaders of each party in the House and the Senate.
The push to overturn the mandate complicates matters as lawmakers come down to the wire to shuttle the behemoth policy bill through Congress with just weeks left in the legislative session. The bill has passed every year for more than six decades.
After weeks of closed-door talks to iron out differences between House and Senate versions of the bill, negotiators are reportedly nearing a final version that could be taken up as soon as next week.
Negotiators have reportedly agreed on including a $45 billion boost to the Pentagon budget for 2023 — a rebuke of President Biden’s much lower request, which many lawmakers argued failed to keep pace with inflation.
The added funding mirrors the Senate Armed Services approved version of the bill. The House approved a $37 billion increase to the Pentagon’s top line in its version.
If passed, it would mark the second year that lawmakers have used the catch-all NDAA to increase the Pentagon budget above Mr. Biden’s request.
The budget boost is a significant win for Republicans, but those opposed to the vaccine mandate say it is a hill they are willing to die on.
“I don’t think there’s anything more important than defending the men and women that serve,” said Sen. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican who also is a Navy veteran and member of the Senate Armed Services committee.
“There are a lot of things in the NDAA that I fought hard to get, but there’s nothing more important than taking care of the men and women in the service,” he said.