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Republicans Immunized Against Change 

The end of the vaccine mandate comes at a convenient moment for weak Republicans in the U.S. House.

House Minority Leader McCarthy Briefs Press In Weekly News Conference
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Kevin McCarthy is eyeing the laurels. Congress will end the military’s vaccine mandate, and his role as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives will be secured.

The move to stop the Department of Defense from mandating the Covid-19 vaccine for all service members is indeed a victory. But after more than a year of constituents and service men and women pestering their congressional representatives about the issue, only to be largely ignored, the timing seems suspect, to say the least. House Republicans as a group stayed silent until a few short weeks ago, when midterm elections and leadership decisions were once again on the line. Out of nowhere, the voices crying in the wilderness were at last heard, and the Grand Ol’ Party was suddenly outraged that the military would remove talented service members over a shot. As usual, they look likely to come through hot water unscalded, simply by waiting until temperatures were tepid.

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The agreement to end the vaccine mandate will be tied up with the annual National Defense Authorization Act, one of the two major appropriations bills set to be passed before the end of the year. If the bill as it stands is passed—and it is expected to, as both parties have approved it in negotiations—the Department of Defense would no longer be permitted to require Covid-19 vaccination as a condition for entry or continued service in the United States military. 

In addition to serving as a rallying point for lackluster Republicans, the decision is also made with one eye firmly on plummeting recruitment rates in the military over the past several years. The Army in particular has made headlines for lowering recruitment goals and still coming up 10,000 soldiers short. The end of the vaccine mandate would not, however, reinstate those members, roughly 3,400 as of April, who were removed from the service on account of not taking the shot. 

Last fall, I spoke with several such service members who sought a religious exemption to the mandate. These men and women, mostly Christian, were by conviction opposed to taking the Covid-19 vaccine due to the passage in Romans 14 that reads “whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” To take the vaccine while doubting its needfulness and efficacy would be, they believed, a sin. Many pestered their respective congressional offices for legal support during this time, by way of a bill or amendment, but ultimately were left to fight for themselves.

One of these men was Lieutenant Colonel C. Scott “Sonny” Duncan, a pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps. Of the promise to end the mandate, Duncan told me this week he is “cautiously optimistic.”

“Any congressional support is beneficial for service members, especially at a time when manpower is a concern,” Duncan said. “Something that does not appear to be addressed, however, is that while stopping the vaccine mandate is one step in the right direction, there’s a lot of change that needs to take place. There’s a whole host of other issues at stake here: free exercise of religion, what constitutes a lawful order versus what is infringement on a man’s constitutional rights. Hopefully we can correct those and learn the lesson so we don’t repeat this in the future.”

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Duncan added that it is unclear so far how this end to the mandate will be interpreted and executed. 

“It still does not account for how folks have been handled for the last year and a half,” Duncan said. “We don’t want to see these lessons learned again anytime soon.”

How folks have been handled is no small thing. In addition to the 3,400 who lost their jobs over the shot, another unknown number of them hang in the balance, after a federal judge in Cincinnati granted a preliminary injunction on a case involving 80 to 100 airmen, saying they could not be removed as a result of their Covid-19 vaccine status. While this injunction had the effect of pausing any further removals across all branches of the military, it also meant that those men and women who had not received the vaccine, including those due to retire, would be caught in an administrative gray area for the foreseeable future. 

That gray area is where Duncan is now. Despite a perfect record, the former TOPGUN instructor with more than 19 years of service under his belt cannot file for early retirement due to this administrative tangle. His religious accommodation request was denied last October, and his appeal of that decision denied January 2022, but he remains an active duty Marine today, 14 months later, unable to request to retire.

Meanwhile, McCarthy is teed up for his promotion. While the establishment is behind him, a not-insignificant faction of the Republican Party certainly is not. It’s not the first time the more conservative wing has threatened to keep him from the gavel. Yet whatever scuttlebut there may be about choosing someone else for the job—Andy Biggs from Arizona is launching a heartening, if improbable, challenge—it’s looking increasingly less likely that the majority of House Republicans can rally behind anyone but the lukewarm representative from California. 

Ending the vaccine mandate is McCarthy’s final pitch to inject life into a campaign for leadership that has been marked more by cold resignation than excitement, and it will probably work, but it will not give jobs back to 3,400 people who had the misfortune of believing the right thing at the wrong time. The status quo remains, as it always will, while Republicans fear a Democratic speaker more than they fear the status quo. To the American people, however, the letter by the leader’s name seems to make less and less of a difference.

Members of the civilian and military service who spoke for this article spoke in their personal capacity and do not represent the opinions or positions of the United States Armed Forces or Department of Defense.

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