SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Final defense legislation set to be unveiled next week could undo the Pentagon’s policy of kicking out troops for not taking the Covid vaccine, the Democratic chair of the House Armed Services Committee said Saturday.
“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 defense bill is set to be unveiled Monday and House leaders plan to hold a vote on the $847 billion policy measure sometime next week. Negotiators had hoped to file the legislation on Friday, but congressional leaders were still ironing out several outstanding issues, apparently including the vaccine policy.
Undoing the policy — a measure that neither the House nor Senate included in their versions of the defense bill — would be a win for Republicans who argue forcing troops to get the shot or leave the military is exacerbating a recruiting and retention crisis. Thousands of troops have been kicked out for refusing the vaccine.
GOP leaders are planning to focus on the policy when they take control of the House, if it isn’t rolled back before then.
Republican lawmakers and governors have pressed hard to undo the mandate in recent days. A group of 13 Republican senators, led by Rand Paul of Kentucky, have promised to try to block the bill unless they’re granted a vote on an amendment to bar kicking out military personnel solely for refusing a Covid-19 vaccine and reinstate separated troops with back pay.
And Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) has pushed legislation to suspend the policy when the military isn’t meeting its target levels for personnel.
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.”
“Now what the policy should be from this point forward? That’s a question we were willing to ask about,” he said.
Smith all but endorsed the idea that the need for mandating the armed forces receive a Covid vaccine has passed.
He said the “pandemic has winded down,” noting that most law enforcement and health officials in his home state of Washington are no longer required to be vaccinated.
“We were very, very aggressive in Washington state on a wide variety of Covid policies,” he said. “Vaccine mandates have been lifted by a wide variety of agencies — police departments, fire departments, health departments — because of where we’re at right now and the effect of the vaccine and the effect of people who caught the disease.”
He also noted that the current Pentagon policy does not require booster shots for the coronavirus.
“At this point, let’s say you got those two shots or that one shot in March of 2021,” Smith said. “Those people can serve, but someone who hasn’t gotten anything can’t?”
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