Sen. James Lankford will not lift his hold on President Biden’s Department of Defense nominees, even with the impending repeal of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the armed services that’s included in an annual defense policy bill working its way through Congress.
The Oklahoma Republican said he will continue blocking DOD nominees until he receives assurances from the Pentagon that troops who have been seeking religious exemptions are granted such freedom.
The $847 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that Congress is expected to pass in the coming days would repeal the COVID-19 vaccine mandate altogether, but Mr. Lankford said his concerns persist about how the new policy would be implemented.
“I need to hear from [Defense Department leadership] what their plan is to be able to deal with those individuals that have been seeking religious accommodation,” Mr. Lankford told a handful of news outlets, including The Washington Times, Monday evening. “If they’re going to continue to be able to hold them up and say, ‘we’re going to talk about this for months and months, we’re still not going to make a decision,’ I’m going to continue to hold nominations.”
Mr. Lankford said the Pentagon has failed to adequately and fairly address service members’ religious waivers from the shot, with data showing that only a fraction of requests to skip the vaccine are granted. Defense Department officials have denied such charges.
Mr. Lankford first announced his hold on Pentagon nominees last week, joining GOP colleagues who placed holds for separate reasons.
There were at least nine senior Defense Department nominees awaiting confirmation as of last week, according to Defense News.
The process for overcoming any senator’s hold on a nomination is cumbersome and would require nominees to restart the process in the new Congress — meaning Democrats and the administration would want to persuade Mr. Lankford to lift his hold as soon as possible.
“I’ve been in this fight for a very long time, and a lot of those folks that are waiting just need an answer,” he said. “They need to know, is the service they’ve served with for 20 years now going to kick them out because they’re not getting a COVID shot because of a religious accommodation request, or can they stay and finish their career?”