With the deadline to pass the annual defense authorization bill looming, GOP lawmakers are throwing a potential wrench into the timeline. At the center of the issue is the Biden administration’s military COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
We’ll share what the issue is and why it matters, plus what President Biden’s nominee for ambassador to Russia told senators today and the newly announced death of ISIS’s leader.
This is Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell.
GOP lawmakers target Pentagon vaccine mandate
Nearly all Republican governors and 13 GOP Senate lawmakers are taking aim at the Biden administration’s military COVID-19 vaccine mandate, with the two groups on Wednesday urging congressional leadership to try to alter or altogether dismantle the ruling.
The governors’ argument: “The Biden vaccine mandate on our military creates a national security risk that severely impacts our defense capabilities abroad and our state readiness here at home,” the governors argue, claiming that “current servicemembers are leaving our ranks, and new recruits are not signing up to join.”
Meanwhile, in the Senate: The 13 Republican senators, meanwhile, hope to insert language in the annual defense authorization bill that would prohibit any service member from being removed from the ranks should they refuse the coronavirus vaccine, as well as reinstate those already discharged with back pay.
In a separate letter led by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the lawmakers oppose moving forward with the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act unless the Senate votes on an amendment that includes such stipulations.
“The Department of Defense COVID-19 vaccine mandate has ruined the livelihoods of men and women who have honorably served our country,” reads the letter sent to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) and Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (Mo.).
Some background: The Pentagon in August 2021 required COVID-19 vaccinations for all service members — including those in the National Guard and Reserve — with those who do not comply facing loss of days they accrue toward retirement, loss of pay or even dismissal from the ranks known as involuntary separation.
The U.S. military in February began to discharge service members for refusing the vaccine, with Pentagon officials in April telling Congress about 3,400 troops had been involuntarily separated from service.
Pushback: The mandate has received heavy pushback from Republican lawmakers and has been the subject of several lawsuits looking to dismantle it.
But the Biden administration has held firm, with defense officials arguing the vaccine mandate is meant to ensure force readiness and is critical to the health and safety of the force, with no readiness issues yet observed.
GOP SENATORS THREATEN TO WITHHOLD VOTES ON NDAA
Later on Wednesday, a group of Republican senators threatened to withhold their votes to advance the NDAA if the chamber doesn’t vote on whether to end the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for members of the military.
“Congress should take action. And we’re taking action by saying we will not vote to get on the NDAA … unless we have a vote on ending this military vaccine mandate,” Paul told reporters at a press conference at the Capitol.
Whose withholding: Paul said 20 Senate Republicans have signed a letter signaling they will vote against cloture on the NDAA. Forty-one senators are needed back the effort in order to grind NDAA action to a halt, and the Kentucky Republican acknowledged their efforts will go nowhere without support from GOP leadership. No member of Republican leadership has thus far jumped on board, with Paul saying their response has been “agnostic.”
But Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who also signed the letter, asked of supporters of the vaccine mandate, “Is this really a hill worth dying on? I think not.”
The group of senators also said the possible amendment vote should be held at a simple-majority threshold, meaning that 51 senators could put the bill over the top to get attached to the overall proposal.
Biden’s diplomatic nominee to Moscow calls on lawmakers to maintain pressure on Russia
President Biden’s nominee for ambassador to Russia told senators on Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin is cracking under pressure from the U.S. and its allies, urging lawmakers to stay the course on supporting Ukraine.
“My impression of President Putin and his mindset is he thinks that he is more patient than we are,” Lynne Tracy, who now serves as U.S. ambassador to Armenia, said. “That he can wait us out, that our unity of purpose and will, will crumble before his does and I think that, that needs to be demonstrated to him that that is not an accurate calculation.”
An upcoming vote: Tracy was speaking at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Biden nominated Tracy in September following the exit of former Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chair of the panel, told The Hill he would like to see a floor vote for Tracy’s nomination as early as next week, saying it would depend on the 28-year veteran diplomat fulfilling outstanding questions from the committee that were not answered in her hearing.
“As far as I’m concerned, if she gets answers to those questions up, then I’d like to see her have her vote as early as next week if it’s possible,” he said.
Her credentials: Tracy was a deputy chief of mission to the embassy in Moscow between 2014 and 2017. She took on the role shortly after Russian forces aided separatists in eastern Ukraine and invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
“Our relations were hurtling downward and we faced regular harassment of our staff,” she told the panel.
Support expected: Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed support for Tracy’s nomination and emphasized the importance of having in place a top U.S. official to reestablish lines of communication with the Russian government that have become “greatly attenuated and they are quite infrequent.”
The issues at play: Priority conversations surround reducing the risk that nuclear weapons will be used in the conflict, Tracy said. She added that she would push the Russian government to fulfill its obligations to allow U.S. inspections of Russian nuclear weapons sites under New START, the 2011 agreement between Washington and Moscow to address nuclear nonproliferation.
The State Department said the Russian government unilaterally rejected participating in nuclear talks related to the treaty that were scheduled to take place in Egypt this week.
Tracy said that the Biden administration remains open to negotiating a new nuclear agreement when New START expires in 2026, but that Russia needs to show it is serious.
Islamic State leader killed in battle, spokesman says
Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the leader of the Islamic State terror group, was killed in battle in mid-October, the Pentagon confirmed Wednesday.
Al-Qurayshi was “killed while struggling against the enemies’ of God,” Islamic State spokesman Abu Omar al-Muhajer said in an audio message released by the group’s media affiliate al-Furqan, according to The Associated Press.
Limited details: The message did not say how the commander was killed or where, but the Pentagon in a separate statement said he died during an operation that “was conducted by The Free Syrian Army in Dar’a province in Syria.”
“The death of Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in mid-October is another blow to ISIS,” U.S. Central Command Spokesman Col. Joe Buccino said in a brief statement.
A new leader: ISIS announced Abu al-Husain al-Husaini al-Quraish as its next leader, describing him as an “old fighter” with no additional details. Little is known about al-Quraish.
Al-Qurayshi began leading the group after the U.S. killed his predecessor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, in a February raid in Syria, and the more recent death marks the second Islamic State leader killed this year.
ON TAP TOMORROW
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies, will hold a discussion on “Nuclear Weapons and Kim Family,” at 9:30 a.m.:
- The Foundation for Defense of Democracies will host an event on “Rogue Proliferators: Nonproliferation Threats Posed by Iran, Syria, Russia, and North Korea,” with keynote remarks byC.S. Eliot Kang, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, among others, at 9:30 a.m.
- The Hudson Institute, will hold a virtual talk on “How to Overcome the Military Recruitment and Retention Crisis,” with Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), at 10 a.m.
- The Arab Center will hold a virtual discussion on “Iraq at a Crossroads: Challenges and Prospects Facing the New Government,” with former Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Rend al Rahim, at 10 a.m.
- Retired Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond will speak at the Stimson Center at 11 a.m.
- The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments will hold a dialogue on “Moving Pieces: Near-Term Changes to Pacific Air Posture,” at 2 p.m.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies will also host a conversation on “Growing Challenges, Rising Ambitions: AUSMIN 2022 and Expanding U.S.-Australia Cooperation,” at 3 p.m.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- DOJ will have to wait for Jan. 6 panel’s final report to access transcripts
- DHS warns of ‘heightened threat environment’ in pre-holiday terrorism bulletin
- Zelensky says Musk should visit Ukraine to see war for himself
- Blinken labels Russian attacks on Ukraine energy infrastructure ‘barbaric’
- The Hill: Opinion: Is Russia a terrorist state?
- The Hill: Opinion: The real costs of Russia’s Ukraine war