The Department of Defense is halting all actions relating to its COVID-19 vaccine mandate after President Joe Biden signed a bill, the Fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which will bring an end to the mandate, the department said on Dec. 23.
“The NDAA requires that, not later than 30 days after enactment, the Secretary of Defense rescind the mandate that members of the Armed Forces be vaccinated against COVID-19. As a result, the Department will rescind the mandate and is currently in the process of developing further guidance. During this process, we are pausing all actions related to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate,” a Pentagon spokesperson said.
“The health and readiness of our force are crucial to the Department’s ability to defend our nation, and Secretary Austin continues to encourage all of our Service members, civilian employees, and contractor personnel to get vaccinated and boosted to ensure the readiness of our total force,” the spokesperson added.
Hours earlier, Biden signed the bill, despite saying earlier in the month that he opposed the end of the mandate and the White House suggesting at one point that it may be vetoed.
In a statement, Biden did not mention the end of the mandate but did say he found several parts of the bill concerning.
The bill states that, within 30 days after the legislation’s enactment, the U.S. secretary of defense “shall rescind the mandate that members of the Armed Forces be vaccinated against COVID-19.”
The mandate was imposed in August 2021 by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. It has been kept in place even as vaccine effectiveness has plummeted since the omicron variant’s surge. .
Pentagon officials declined to comment on the bill in recent days, noting that it had not been finalized yet, leaving many members of the military unclear of their future.
The secretary of defense will also be required to submit to the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House Armed Services Committee a recurring report regarding the vaccine mandate, which will include the number of religious exemption requests that were lodged and denied and the reason for the denials.
Each military branch has rejected most religious exemption requests and even discharged some members whose requests were denied.
Three branches have been blocked from discharging such members by judges who have found that the military violated federal laws including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act with its treatment of religious members seeking accommodation.
The first report is due within 90 days of the bill’s enactment.
Biden mentioned by name multiple provisions in the bill he opposes, including one that bars using Department of Defense-appropriated funds to transfer Guantanamo Bay detainees to the control of certain foreign countries.
The bill also prohibits the funds from transferring some of the detainees to the United States.
“It is the longstanding position of the executive branch that these provisions unduly impair the ability of the executive branch to determine when and where to prosecute Guantánamo Bay detainees and where to send them upon release. In some circumstances, these provisions could make it difficult to comply with the final judgment of a court that has directed the release of a detainee on writ of habeas corpus, including by constraining the flexibility of the executive branch with respect to its engagement in delicate negotiations with foreign countries over the potential transfer of detainees. I urge the Congress to eliminate these restrictions as soon as possible,” Biden said.
The president opposed parts of the legislation requiring the president and other officials in the Executive branch to submit reports to congressional committees. Biden claimed that these requirements will expose highly sensitive classified information. Presidential designees will also be required to share information with congressional officers.
“The congressional findings in section 7201 of the Act make clear that the information-sharing in question is designed to ensure that the Congress has information concerning cybersecurity and counterintelligence threats to the Congress itself,” Biden said. “I therefore construe the requirements of section 7201 of the Act to be limited to information-sharing related to such cybersecurity and counterintelligence threats to the legislative branch.”
In spite of his opposition to some portions of the funding bill, the president signed it.
The House and Senate both passed the legislation, clocking in at $858 billion, earlier this month in bipartisan votes. Multiple members praised the bill.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), authored several of the bills in the package, including the Taiwan Policy Act, which allocates nearly $4.5 billion in security assistance to Taiwan, designates Taiwan as a major ally and aims to bolster Taiwan’s defense as a way to counteract the Chinese Communist Party.
McCaul said the bill would “make our world a safer place!”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) said the defense funding legislation would combat fentanyl trafficking, boost domestic supply chains and further assist Ukraine in its war with Russia with another $800 million for Ukraine, adding, “I’m proud to have shaped the new annual defense law.”
Opponents, meanwhile, said the legislation included unnecessary spending, such as the additional aid to Ukraine. “The 2023 NDAA is bloated and contains woke elements that do not enhance military readiness,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) said.
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