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McConnell silent on reinstating troops kicked out over vaccine in defense bill

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 15, 2022. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
December 06, 2022

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has not said whether he will support an amendment to the 2023 defense budget bill to reinstate troops discharged over the military-wide COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

McConnell’s office has not responded to multiple American Military News requests for comment on his support for the amendment.

On Wednesday, 13 Senate Republicans sent a letter to McConnell and other Republican Senate leaders, saying they would oppose invoking cloture on the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) unless the Senate votes on an amendment to end the military COVID-19 vaccine mandate and reinstate the troops who were discharged over it, with backpay.

Fellow Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — who is leading the push for the amendment — said 20 Republicans already support his push for the amendment. The effort would need the support of at least 41 Senators to prevent the NDAA from going forward on a cloture motion without a vote on the vaccine mandate amendment.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-SD), Senate Republican Conference Chair John Barrasso (R-WY) and Conference Vice Chair Roy Blunt (R-MO) all have yet to publicly respond to the letter from the 13 Senators.

Last week, Paul described the Republican Senate leadership’s response to his amendment as “agnostic.”

CNN reported on Monday, based on a source familiar with defense budget negotiations, that

On Monday, Thune told CNN that negotiations on the defense budget had hit a standstill. Democrats had reportedly agreed to some language to do away with the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, but had begun raising new demands in negotiations. It is not clear that how the language Democrats reportedly agreed to on the vaccine mandate differed from Paul’s proposed amendment.

“The Dems have all kinds of extraneous asks that have nothing to do with defense,” Thune told CNN. “They’ve now decided to try extract a huge ransom.”

On Tuesday, McConnell released a statement blaming Democrats for slowing NDAA negotiations with “miscellaneous pet priorities” and called for them to stop the delays and bring a bipartisan bill to the Senate floor. McConnell made no mention of the military’s COVID-19 vaccine policies in his comments about defense budget negotiations.

In a Reagan Defense Forum panel discussion this weekend, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger said the COVID-19 vaccine mandate is “tied to readiness” U.S. troops but said the mandate was impacting recruiting.