Defense bill text includes vaccine mandate repeal, nixes permitting reform

The text of the annual defense policy bill includes language to repeal a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the military and dropped permitting reform backed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), according to a draft of the legislation released by the House Rules Committee on Tuesday. 

The National Defense Authorization Act, which will determine how the Defense Department’s $847 billion will be distributed during fiscal year 2023, could receive a vote in the House by Thursday. 

The release comes after House Democrats agreed to include language in the NDAA to repeal the vaccine mandate for service members one year after it was put in place. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had made including the repeal of the mandate a top priority in the legislation and said on Sunday that the bill “will not move” unless it includes language to repeal it. 

The Pentagon and the Biden administration had supported maintaining the mandate. 

McCarthy celebrated the inclusion of the repeal in a statement on Tuesday but said the Biden administration should go further. He said the dismissal of thousands of service members over their refusal to comply with the mandate hurt the military and put national security at risk. 

“These heroes deserve justice now that the mandate is no more,” he said. “The Biden administration must correct service records and not stand in the way of re-enlisting any service member discharged simply for not taking the COVID vaccine.” 

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, said the removal was necessary for the bill to advance, The Associated Press reported

“This was gas on the fire exacerbating our existing problem,” Rogers said. “And the president said, you know, the pandemic is over. It’s time for us to recognize that and remove this unnecessary policy.” 

In a blow to Joe Manchin, his push for policies intended to speed up the construction of energy infrastructure was not included in the text that was released.  

Manchin had been pushing for the inclusion of his so-called permitting reforms, which Democratic leadership had agreed to pass in exchange for his vote on their major climate, tax and healthcare bill.  

Manchin had previously tried to attach the slate of policies to a stopgap government funding measure but failed to do amid opposition from both Republicans and progressives.  

He has been working in recent weeks to get Republicans on board, but still faced some resistance, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday calling the effort reform “in name only.” 

Progressives had also mobilized against the effort once again, vowing to vote against the procedural rule to bring the NDAA to the floor if it included the permitting provisions.  

Typically, regardless of their support for the underlying bill, the minority party doesn’t vote for a rule issued by the majority party, so only a few Democrats would probably be needed to block the NDAA rule even if there are enough Republicans who will support the effort.  

Manchin on Tuesday night released a written statement condemning the exclusion. 

“Failing to pass bipartisan energy permitting reform that both Republicans and Democrats have called for will have long term consequences for our energy independence,” he said.  

“The American people will pay the steepest price for Washington once again failing to put common sense policy ahead of toxic tribal politics. This is why the American people hate politics in Washington,” he added.  

Meanwhile, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who spearheaded the push, celebrated its exclusion.  

“House Democrats can now close out the year having made historic progress on climate change without this ugly asterisk,” he said in a written statement.  

Among the policies that Manchin has pushed for would aim to speed up the timeline for environmental reviews, bolster the deployment of transmission lines, require the president to expedite priority fossil and renewable projects and secure the approval of a natural gas pipeline in West Virginia.