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Will Republicans derail military spending over Covid vaccines?

The annual spending bill that funds the United States military has a problem: Republicans want to end the policy on Covid vaccines for American troops.

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The name of the bill understates its significance. The National Defense Authorization Act, generally known as the NDAA, might sound bureaucratic, but it’s actually a massive, annual defense spending bill that funds the United States military.

But that’s not all it does. The NDAA also guides Pentagon policy, touching on everything from troop levels to weapons systems to military personnel policy. It takes months to negotiate the details, and by some measures, as much legislative work goes into this one package as any other bill in a typical Congress.

By all appearances, this year’s NDAA is just about ready for floor votes on Capitol Hill, but a sizable group of Republicans are focused on one key sticking point. NBC News reported last week:

Several Republicans are warning they will drag out Senate consideration of a massive military policy bill unless they get a vote on ending a Covid vaccination mandate for service members. At a news conference Wednesday, the seven senators said they would withhold support for quick consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act if Senate leaders don’t allow a floor vote on their proposal.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, naturally, is helping lead the charge, insisting that he and other Republicans are determined to end “this military vaccine mandate.”

There’s related rhetoric coming from the other side of the Capitol. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Fox News yesterday morning, “We will secure lifting that vaccine mandate on our military.” Asked if the vaccination policy would be definitively removed from the NDAA, the California Republican said, “Yes, it will. Otherwise, the bill will not move.”

The military appears to have a very different perspective on this. Indeed, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said over the weekend that he’s determined to keep the existing vaccination policy in place in order to protect the health of American troops.

“We lost a million people to this virus,” the Pentagon chief told reporters on Saturday. “A million people died in the United States of America. We lost hundreds in [the Department of Defense]. So this mandate has kept people healthy. ... I support continuation of vaccinating the troops.”

Similarly, the National Security Council confirmed this morning that President Joe Biden is not on board with Republican efforts to remove the existing policy from the NDAA.

I won’t pretend to know exactly how this will play out. It’s possible that GOP lawmakers will push for a vote on an amendment, and if it fails, the NDAA will advance without a whole lot of drama. It’s also possible that Republicans will play a serious game over this issue, even if it puts military funding in jeopardy.

But while the negotiations continue, it’s worth pausing to appreciate just how misguided the GOP effort is.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, when the military adopted its existing policy, it was effectively a no-brainer: Biden and Austin agreed on the importance of protecting Americans in uniform from a dangerous contagion.

When the policy was announced, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff noted in a message to service members that the “health and readiness of our force is critical to America’s defense.” The Army general added, “Mandating vaccines in the military is not new.”

This remains an underappreciated detail. Those in uniform are currently required, for example, to be protected against ailments such as diphtheria and measles. The vaccines are not optional; they’re simply part of military service.

What’s more, as Rachel explained on the show last year, depending on where service members may be deployed, troops are required to receive up to 17 different vaccinations. This has been the Pentagon’s policy for quite a while, and it’s never been especially notable in the American mainstream. It didn’t seem to occur to congressional Republicans to complain about it or fight with military leaders about whether to protect Americans in uniform — until, that is, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee argued late last week, “No service member should have to choose between serving our country and a shot.” But the troops have already made that choice: All kinds of vaccinations are already required. Those who don’t want the health protections are not allowed to serve. It’s not about punishing vaccine opponents; it’s about military readiness and protecting the troops.

It wasn’t until the GOP decided to make Covid a culture war crusade that this threatened any modern NDAA.