Pandemic Politics Holding Up Gazillion-Dollar Defense Bill

A soldier obeys orders to get a jab.
Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

One of the very few bipartisan traditions still standing in Congress is the annual passage of a defense authorization bill setting policy for the Pentagon and national security strategy generally. Despite all sorts of partisan tensions and efforts to take the bill hostage, this has happened for 61 straight years. Making that 62 straight years has been a priority for the lame-duck session of Congress currently under way. The House passed its version of the measure — authorizing $839 billion in defense spending for the fiscal year that began on October 1 — in July, with robust majorities from both party caucuses. It was mostly noteworthy for adding to President Biden’s spending requests and knocking down a few of the administration’s specific defense-policy proposals, notably stopping the Defense Department from scrapping certain aircraft, ships, and missile programs.

For mostly scheduling reasons, the Senate has taken longer to negotiate its version of the bill and has decided to work out a final deal with the House and the administration that can be whipped quickly through the lame-duck session in both chambers and presented to the president for his signature. But at the last minute, a dispute that has little to do with defense policy threatens to throw sand into the gears of the process: a battle over revocation of the COVID-vaccine mandate for members of the armed forces that was imposed in August 2021.

It’s entirely unsurprising that Republicans, whose base is heavily larded with anti-vaxxers and who have sought to make any sort of COVID-related requirements a big civil-liberties issue, would want to scrap the military mandate. (Twenty-one Republican governors also recently sent Biden a letter calling for this policy change.) And it seems that Democrats (including within the White House) are grudgingly willing to give them this trophy. Indeed, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is already crowing about it, according to the Washington Post:

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) claimed Sunday that he had worked out the arrangement directly with President Biden. Although White House officials later disputed that characterization, McCarthy described the compromise as his party’s “first victory” since the GOP won control of the House in the midterm elections.

House Armed Services Committee chairman Adam Smith isn’t conceding it’s a done deal, but it sounds like the handwriting is on the wall, Politico reports:

“We haven’t resolved it, but it is very fair to say that it’s in discussion,” Smith told POLITICO on the sidelines of the Reagan National Defense Forum. He noted that the mandate may not be logical anymore.

“I was a very strong supporter of the vaccine mandate when we did it, a very strong supporter of the Covid restrictions put in place by DoD and others,” he added. “But at this point in time, does it make sense to have that policy from August 2021? That is a discussion that I am open to and that we’re having.”

The bigger problem is that Republicans are mulling a demand that military members who refused to obey the vaccine mandate and were accordingly discharged be reinstated and even compensated. Smith says that’s a nonstarter:

While negotiators are willing to entertain the possibility of undoing the policy, Smith said GOP calls to reinstate or grant back pay to troops who refused the shot amounted to a red line. He called the push “a horrible idea.”

“The one thing that I was adamant about — so were others — is there’s going to be no reinstatement or back pay for the people who refused to obey the order to get the vaccine,” Smith said. “Orders are not optional in the military.”

It’s increasingly clear that the big question is whether Republicans will choose to deep-six the defense bill for the first time in 62 years in order to score a culture-war point about the alleged unreasonableness of a soon-to-be-past vaccine mandate. If they do, it will underscore how important resistance to COVID-prevention efforts is to the GOP’s messaging.

The dispute will also be an indicator as to whether McCarthy has even the most minimal interest in bipartisan governing once he obtains the Speaker’s gavel in January (assuming he isn’t pushed aside by his caucus’s extremists first). Back in November, he was already making noises about forcing a renegotiation of the defense bill so that it would not pass until the next Congress convenes, as Defense News reported:

“I’ve watched what the Democrats have done on many of these things, especially the NDAA — the woke-ism that they want to bring in there,” McCarthy told reporters on Tuesday after House Republican leadership elections, where the majority of his caucus nominated him to serve as speaker in the next Congress. “I actually believe the NDAA should hold up until the 1st of this year — and let’s get it right.”

That McCarthy is apparently willing to put national security policy on hold so that he can pursue the idiotic MAGA crusade against a “woke military” tells us a lot about the kind of conduct we can expect from him going forward. If he does hold the defense bill hostage, we’ll know that he may formally hold the Speaker’s gavel, but Marjorie Taylor Greene owns it.

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