WASHINGTON — 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 vaccine mandate for service members.
At a news conference Wednesday, the group of 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 said the group “will not vote to get on the NDAA — the defense authorization bill — unless we have a vote on ending this military vaccine mandate.”
Paul, who frequently clashed with Dr. Anthony Fauci over the Covid vaccine, typically votes against the NDAA each year. He is also in line to be the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which oversees the government’s pandemic response.
The threat from the senators could delay final passage of the annual bill, which Congress has consistently passed, but it would not prevent the Senate from eventually voting on the legislation.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., argued that military recruitment had suffered as a result of vaccine requirements, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made mandatory for all service members in August 2021. The requirement applies to all service members on active duty or in the Ready Reserve, including the National Guard.
“The problem here is that we’re having a dilemma we haven’t had in decades — and that’s finding enough people serving,” Graham said. “Our recruiting goals are way short, the conflict in the world is getting worse, not better. We need more people in the military, not less.”
NBC News reported in June that every branch of the U.S. military was struggling to meet its recruiting goals for fiscal 2022, which ended Sept. 30.
Sen. Ted Cruz, who is also threatening to slow consideration of the defense policy bill, suggested the Biden administration was using the Covid vaccine policy to “purge” conservatives from the military.
“I think they’re using it as an excuse from the enlisted level, all the way up to the majors and colonels to the top brass,” the Texas Republican said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin cast doubt on the effectiveness of the vaccine, despite their proven ability to provide robust protection against hospitalization and death.
“The bottom line here is the vaccine does not prevent infection. It does not prevent transmission,” Johnson said. “So why would we make anybody take it? It is insane.”
The other GOP senators calling for a vaccine vote include Rick Scott of Florida, Mike Lee of Utah and Mike Braun of Indiana.
The Biden administration has had a mixed record on Covid vaccine mandates challenged in court. In January, the Supreme Court blocked the administration’s rule requiring larger businesses to ensure that workers are vaccinated or wear masks and get tested weekly. But it also said a separate mandate requiring vaccinations for an estimated 20 million health care workers could be enforced.
Without the support of Senate Republican leaders, the proposal from the seven senators is unlikely to get a vote.
When asked about conversations with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other GOP leaders, Paul said “no one” in leadership has backed their plan.
“To my knowledge, no one in leadership has signed up to support the effort yet. And I’d ask, from my perspective, that they let us know if they’re for or against this,” Paul said.
McConnell’s office declined to comment.
Julie Tsirkin is a producer and reporter for NBC News’ Capitol Hill team.
Zoë Richards is the evening politics reporter for NBC News.
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