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House passes defense bill that rescinds military Covid vaccine mandate

By Clare Foran, CNN

The House voted on Thursday to pass sweeping legislation that would authorize $858 billion in national defense funding and rescind the US military’s Covid vaccine mandate. The measure passed with wide bipartisan support with a tally of 350 to 80.

House lawmakers approved a final negotiated version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023, which sets the policy agenda and authorizes funding for the Department of Defense. Following passage in the House, the measure will next need to go to the Senate to be approved before it can be sent to President Joe Biden to be signed into law.

As part of its $858 billion topline for national defense funding, the measure authorizes $817 billion specifically for the Department of Defense. The massive bill includes a vast number of policy provisions. Among them, it would authorize a 4.6% pay raise for military service members. It includes provisions to strengthen air power and land warfare defense capabilities as well as cybersecurity. It also aims to bolster US support for Ukraine and NATO.

The provision to rescind the military’s Covid vaccine mandate comes after congressional Republicans pushed for its repeal. In a statement Tuesday night, House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy said, “the end of President Biden’s military COVID vaccine mandate is a victory for our military and for common sense.”

The White House declined to say on Wednesday whether President Biden will sign the must-pass annual defense bill if it includes the provision to rescind the military Covid vaccine mandate, reiterating that the president continues to support a mandate but leaving the door open to a repeal.

“We continue to believe that repealing the vaccine mandate is a mistake. Making sure our troops are ready to defend this country and prepared to do so that remains the President’s priority and the vaccine requirement for Covid does just that,” National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby told reporters Wednesday when pressed specifically on whether Biden would sign the NDAA if the mandate stayed in the final legislation.

But while White House officials have deferred to — and explicitly sided with — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s opposition to rescinding the mandate, the inclusion of the provision in the final compromise agreement underscores a reality that played out behind the scenes in recent days. Democrats concluded that including the GOP priority was a necessity in order to get the must-pass policy bill across the finish line. And White House officials have quietly acknowledged that means their opposition to the vaccine language will not get in the way of the bill’s passage.

The final version of the defense policy bill to be voted on is the product of lengthy negotiations between key House and Senate lawmakers. It is expected to pass in both chambers with bipartisan support.

The bill outlines the policy agenda for the Department of Defense and the US military and authorizes spending in line with the Pentagon’s priorities, though the legislation does not appropriate the funding itself.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Monday that the chamber could take up the defense bill “as soon as next week.”

Schumer noted the days are dwindling in the calendar year “and there’s still a lot we have to do,” pointing to the NDAA, confirming more of Biden’s judicial nominees and funding the government.

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.

™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Ellie Kaufman, Ali Zaslav, Betsy Klein and Phil Mattingly contributed to this report.

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