OKLAHOMA CITY — U.S. Sen. James Lankford is pressing Congress to approve a measure that would prohibit the Pentagon from financially penalizing any National Guard member who refuses to comply with the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.

Hours before the Pentagon’s Dec. 2 Air National Guard vaccine deadline, Lankford, a Republican, said he’s attempting to amend the National Defense Authorization Act to add a provision to prevent the Pentagon from withholding funding from individual National Guard membersl based on vaccination status.

Lankford said he hopes his measure will encourage other states to take the same route as Oklahoma.

“​​What I'm trying to do is to keep the Pentagon from cutting off funding to individual airmen and individual soldiers, while they're under the authority of the governor,” he said.

Lankford’s move comes after U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin doubled down on his vaccination requirement in a memo sent to the secretaries of the military services, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the undersecretary for defense personnel and readiness, and the chief of the National Guard Bureau.

That memo, signed by Austin, ordered that no Department of Defense funding may be allocated for payment of duties performed under Title 32 for members of the National Guard who don’t comply with the vaccine mandate. It states that unless otherwise exempted, all members of the National Guard must be fully vaccinated by the deadlines established by the Army or Air Force in order to participate in drills, training and other duties.

And, no credit or excused absence shall be afforded to members who do not participate in drills, training or other duties due to failure to be vaccinated.

In response to Lankford’s measure, Pentagon officials on Wednesday referred CNHI Oklahoma back to a letter Austin sent Monday to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, and to Austin’s Tuesday memo, adding that they had no additional comment.

The fight between Stitt and Pentagon officials has been escalating as the Department of Defense’s COVID-19 Dec. 2 vaccine requirement looms for thousands of Oklahoma Air National Guard troops.

Earlier this week, Stitt remained defiant that as commander in chief of the Guard, he would take no administrative or legal action against thousands of Guard personnel who refuse to comply with the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate.

Stitt had requested Austin suspend mandatory vaccine obligations because it could potentially limit the number of individuals able to respond during an emergency and because the mandate “violates the personal freedoms of many Oklahomans, as it asks them to potentially sacrifice their personal beliefs in order to not lose their jobs.”

In his Monday letter, Austin warned that all members of the Oklahoma National Guard must comply with the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate or face a prohibition on their participation in drills or training. The letter’s contents echoed earlier comments made by Pentagon officials, but marked Austin’s first formal response to Stitt’s Nov. 2 request that Austin suspend the military’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement for the Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard.

Under Title 32, the National Guard is a state-controlled, federally-funded entity that takes orders from the governor, according to the Oklahoma National Guard. Under Title 10 - when called up - the Guard takes its orders from federal authorities.

The Pentagon on Tuesday noted that the federal government funds the National Guard, even under Title 32. So training operations that fall under Title 32, much less Title 10, come under Austin’s purview, meaning Air and Army National Guard soldiers must comply with federal vaccination requirements. Officials have said that unvaccinated Oklahoma National Guard personnel wouldn’t be allowed to train, drill or contribute to operations under Title 10 or 32, which could lead to a decertification of their skill sets and result in them being no longer able to serve in the Guard.

Maj. Kristin Tschetter, with the Oklahoma National Guard, said Tuesday that about 11% - or 250 servicemen and women out of the 2,280-member Air National Guard - remained unvaccinated ahead of Thursday’s deadline.. She said about 60% of the 6,500-member Army National Guard remain unvaccinated ahead of the June 2022 deadline.

Tschetter said vaccination uptake rates are expected to continue to tick upward during the next few drill periods. The Oklahoma National Guard continues to offer COVID-19 vaccination clinics during the drills, and leadership is encouraging its members to get vaccinated.

Stitt’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Wednesday afternoon.

Lankford said he has been negotiating all day in the Democratic-controlled Congress in an effort to drum up bipartisan support, but as of now the plan is still in limbo because Democrats are blocking it, he said.

Because the Oklahoma National Guard is controlled by the state until federalized, Lankford contends that the Pentagon does not have the authority to require them to be vaccinated, but acknowledges that the issue is complicated by the fact that the Guard is funded primarily using federal funds.

“The way the financing works for the National Guard is if they don't follow all the different rules then the federal government can cut off funding to the state for the National Guard, but that's not about cutting off individual soldiers and airmen.” Lankford said. “What the Pentagon is trying to do right now is to cut off funding for individual airmen, because their deadline is (Thursday) ... They don't have that right in statute to be able to do that.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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