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Biden signs defense bill that repeals troop vaccine mandate

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden signed a nearly $858 billion defense spending bill into law Friday despite his opposition to a Republican-backed provision in the legislation that repeals the COVID-19 vaccination requirement for U.S. troops.

Biden had agreed with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s determination that lifting the mandate was not in the best interest of troops or the military, according to White House officials. But ultimately, Biden decided to accept Republican demands to lift the vaccine requirement to win passage of the legislation.

Biden in a statement said he had issue with several aspects of the bill.

“The Act provides vital benefits and enhances access to justice for military personnel and their families, and includes critical authorities to support our country’s national defense, foreign affairs, and homeland security,” Biden said. “While I am pleased to support these critical objectives, I note that certain provisions of the Act raise concerns.

The bill includes about $45 billion more for defense programs than Biden requested and roughly 10% more than last year’s bill as lawmakers look to account for inflation and boost the nation’s military competitiveness with China and Russia. It includes a 4.6% pay raise for servicemembers and the Defense Department’s civilian workforce.

The Senate passed the defense policy bill by a vote of 83-11. The measure also received broad bipartisan support in the House.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby last week reiterated Biden’s concerns about lifting the vaccine requirement but said the president would “judge this NDAA as a whole just like he has in the past.”

“Every single year, the NDAA has things in it that we support, and it has things in it that we don’t support,” Kirby added.

The defense bill sets policy and provides a road map for future investments. Lawmakers will have to follow up with spending bills to bring many provisions to reality.

As of early this month, about 99% of the active-duty troops in the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps had been vaccinated, and 98% of the Army. Service members who are not vaccinated are not allowed to deploy, particularly sailors or Marines on ships. There may be a few exceptions to that, based on religious or other exemptions and the duties of the service member.

The vaccination numbers for the Guard and Reserve are lower, but generally all are more than 90%.

Austin made COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory last year, saying the shots were critical to maintaining military readiness and the health of the force. Military leaders have argued that troops for decades have been required to get as many as 17 vaccines, particularly those who are deploying overseas.

The bill would require Austin to end the vaccine mandate “not later than 30 days” after the law is enacted.

The legislation, however, doesn’t end or address requirements for the other vaccines that troops must get. And it doesn’t specifically prohibit the military from preventing a non-vaccinated service member from participating in a specific mission or deployment. It’s unclear if Austin would allow vaccination status to be a consideration in those decisions, or leave it to the services and commanders to decide.