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White House calls removing Covid-19 vaccine mandate a ‘mistake’ but won’t say if Biden will sign NDAA

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By Betsy Klein and Clare Foran, CNN

(CNN) - The White House declined to say whether President Joe Biden will sign the must-pass annual defense bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, if it includes a provision in current text to rescind the military Covid-19 vaccine mandate, reiterating that the president continues to support a mandate but leaving the door open to a repeal.

The inclusion of that provision in the legislative text released Tuesday marks a key win for Republicans, who had pushed for the vaccine mandate to end. GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy called the end of a mandate a "victory for our military and for common sense" in a statement.

"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.

Kirby continued, "But Republicans in Congress have obviously decided that they'd rather fight against the health and well-being of those troops, rather than protecting them."

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 including the GOP priority was a necessity in order to get the must-pass policy bill across the finish line.

White House officials quietly acknowledged that means their opposition to the vaccine language will not get in the way of the bill's passage.

While Kirby repeatedly stressed Wednesday that the White House belief that a repeal is a "mistake," he said the administration does "take some comfort" in the high level of vaccination rates in the Department of Defense.

More than 97% of DOD employees have been vaccinated, Kirby said, and over 99% of active duty service members have had at least one does.

"It's very clear that the overwhelming number of our troops are getting vaccinated and protecting themselves as well as their teammates, as well as their families. So, again, I won't get ahead of process here," he said.

Lawmakers released the text of an agreement for the NDAA for fiscal year 2023 late Tuesday night. A summary from the Senate Armed Services Committee says the bill "requires the Secretary of Defense to rescind the mandate that members of the Armed Forces be vaccinated against COVID-19."

CNN reported earlier this week that the mandate was likely to be rescinded as part of the defense policy bill.

The sweeping legislation authorizes $857.9 billion in national defense spending, and includes other provisions, including a 4.6% pay raise for servicemembers and the DOD civilian workforce, new updates aimed at strengthening military justice and bolstered support for Ukraine and NATO, among many other measures.

The bill will now need to be passed by the House and then the Senate.

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