Sen. James Lankford said Tuesday he plans to block all confirmation votes on Defense Department nominees until the Pentagon explains why it has granted so few religious waivers for troops seeking to avoid the COVID-19 vaccine.
The move by the Oklahoma Republican is the latest sign that GOP lawmakers are dramatically escalating their fight with the Pentagon over the vaccine mandate and the military’s process for determining who is eligible to skip the shot. Key Republican lawmakers also are aiming to use the pending $847 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) as a vehicle to repeal the vaccination mandate altogether, despite strong opposition from the Biden administration.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his aides say the COVID vaccine mandate is a discipline and readiness issue for the armed forces, and have stoutly resisted all efforts to roll it back.
Mr. Lankford’s objection centers on the military’s religious waiver process, which has come under fire from critics who say the Defense Department was woefully unprepared for the number of troops who would ask for a waiver and has failed to treat the requests fairly.
The Pentagon and military services vehemently deny those charges, but Mr. Lankford believes they must explain in detail why the process has produced so few exemptions for service men and women who say taking the vaccine would violate their faith.
“I’ve demanded answers on why the Biden admin has granted almost none of the thousands of religious exemption requests for military vaccine mandates,” he said in a Twitter post Tuesday. “With no adequate response, I announced a hold on [Defense Department] nominees. Partial concessions in the NDAA won’t be enough — we need the truth.”
The percentage of denials across military services has been stark. In the Army, for example, 4,461 soldiers have requested a vaccine waiver on religious grounds. Only 119 have been approved, according to the service’s latest data.
In the Army National Guard, 2,218 have been requested, with just one approved. More than 3,700 Marines have sought religious exemptions from the shot, with just 23 having been approved, the service said on Dec. 1.