WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly passed an $858 billion defense bill that would overturn the Pentagon’s mandate for troops to receive the coronavirus vaccine, overcoming objections from the Biden administration since Lawmakers from both parties agree behind another huge increase in military spending.
The bill, negotiated by Republicans and Democrats in both houses of Congress, would give military personnel a 4.6 percent increase and increase the Pentagon’s budget by $45 billion over President Biden’s request, increasing $800 million -Dollars in new security aid would be provided to Ukraine and billions to Taiwan. It also includes changes sought by lawmakers to the military’s policy for handling sexual assault cases, a major victory long eluded by its proponents.
The vote was 350-80, with a significant number of Republicans joining the Democrats in support.
The bill delivers a double rejection of Mr. Biden’s policies, increasing the defense budget by 8 percent overall as he pushes to keep it nearly unchanged and reversing a vaccine mandate his top officials have fought to keep. And when Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in January, it essentially established the kind of big increases in military budgets that Mr. Biden and many Democrats had hoped to end while maintaining unified control of the government.
John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, called removing vaccinations for troops a “mistake” and accused Republicans of politicizing the law. But he stopped saying that Mr. Biden would veto it.
“Ensuring that our troops are ready and prepared to defend this country remains the President’s priority, and compulsory vaccination for Covid does just that,” Kirby said. “But Congressional Republicans have obviously decided that they would rather fight against the health and welfare of these troops than protect them.”
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Democrats privately said they had no choice but to include the measure after Republicans, specifically California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader running for speaker, threatened to overturn the law if it didn’t die would contain a provision for the repeal of the mandate. Republican votes were required for its passage, as anti-war Democrats on the left routinely oppose such measures.
The bill also has yet to make its way through the evenly divided Senate, where the support of at least 10 Republicans is required to reach the 60-vote threshold to move important legislation forward.
Some Democrats on the Armed Services Committee argued it was wise to reverse the policy. Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat who chairs the panel, said that when the Pentagon introduced the mandate in 2021, it was “absolutely the right policy” and Defense Department officials were right to enforce it.
“But now that we’re here, in December 2022, does this August 2021 policy still make sense? Is it still the right policy? We don’t think that’s the case.”
Mr Smith noted that service members who received an initial dose of the coronavirus vaccine in early 2021 – which now gives them little to no protection against new variants – could continue to serve under current rules.
Republicans hailed the provision as a victory but said they intend to push the issue even further when they took control of the House of Representatives in January by looking for ways to pay military personnel who were fired for refusing to sign the take, reinstate, or pay back the vaccine.
“Make no mistake: This is a victory for our military,” McCarthy said in a statement, adding that when his party takes over, “the real work begins; The Republican majority of the new House of Representatives will work to finally hold the Biden administration to account and help the men and women in uniform who have been wrongly targeted by this administration.”
Military personnel must be vaccinated against a wide range of viruses. Starting with basic training, recruits receive vaccinations that protect them from hepatitis A and B; the flu; Measles, mumps and rubella; meningococci; Polio; tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough; and chickenpox in addition to Covid-19, according to the Defense Health Agency, which oversees health care for the armed forces.
In the armed forces, a large majority of military personnel are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and almost all are at least partially vaccinated. But thousands of soldiers have been fired for refusing to take the vaccine.
The legislation reflects lawmakers’ growing determination to increase military spending to counter Russia’s ongoing assault on Ukraine and growing fears of Chinese aggression against Taiwan. It would increase funding for a Ukrainian security initiative beyond Mr Biden’s request and set up a defense modernization program for Taiwan, approving up to $10 billion in security assistance over the next five years.
And it would allocate more than $2.7 billion to boost ammunition production to counter concerns that the country’s stockpiles are being depleted by the United States’ attempt to meet Ukraine’s arms needs.
The bill builds on reforms to the military justice system passed last year, which relieve commanders of decisions in prosecuting sexual assault cases and give those powers to independent prosecutors. Last year’s defense law largely stripped military commanders of their powers to prosecute sexual assault and myriad other criminal cases, but allowed them to retain important decision-making powers.
Military personnel “now have a justice system worthy of their sacrifice,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who has long campaigned for the measure. “We now have an independent, transparent and accountable judicial system.”
Also included in the legislation is a provision by Senators Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and Majority Leader, and John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, that would block federal access to semiconductor products and services from Chinese firms, including chipmaker YMTC.
And lawmakers agreed, with bipartisan support, to add a measure that would protect the personal information of federal judges and their families from the public, including identifying information such as Social Security and license plates, addresses, schools and places of work. Legislation gained momentum after Judge Esther Salas’ son was shot and killed at her home in New Brunswick, New Jersey, by a lawyer who had been looking for her and also shot her husband.
Several provisions that lawmakers wanted to add to the must-pass law were left out, including laws giving cannabis companies access to banking institutions; a measure championed by Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, to facilitate construction of a natural gas pipeline in his state; and a revision of the Election Census Act.
John Ismay contributed reporting.