House Panel Mulls Ban on Women in Some Combat Support Units

A House committee on Wednesday rejected efforts to block the new round of base closings as it debated a bill that also would bar women from serving in certain Army combat support units.

Rep. John McHugh (search), R-N.Y., planned to offer an amendment to put into law a Defense Department policy from 1994 that prohibits female troops in all four armed services from serving in direct ground combat units below brigade level.

The amendment would define "direct ground combat" and allow the Pentagon to further exclude women from units in other instances, while requiring defense officials to notify Congress when opening up positions to women.

That would broaden language that was added last week and applied only to the Army.

Republicans claim the Army prohibition would affect only about 31 female soldiers. But Lt. Gen. James L. Campbell (search), director of Army staff, wrote the House Armed Services Committee that it could bar women from 21,925 combat-related jobs in the Army.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) said Wednesday the Army is working with Congress and battlefield commanders "to find an appropriate way that's consistent with our country's view on that subject."

The committee was expected to approve the overall bill late Thursday.

The measure sets Defense Department policy and plans spending — but provides no money — for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.

President Bush requested $442 billion for defense for the 2006 fiscal year, excluding money to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The House committee is considering including in the bill a $50 billion fund for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan next year. Passage of that amendment is expected, as are provisions that would increase the size of the military by 10,000 soldiers and 1,000 Marines and boost pay grades for uniformed personnel by 3.1 percent.

Initiated by the House committee chairman, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the women-in-combat language has drawn sharp rebukes over the past week from Democrats and from Army officials.

The Army-only provision, an effort to keep women out of "a direct ground combat mission," would ban women from being assigned to the service's "forward support companies."

Those units provide infantry, armor and artillery units with equipment, ammunition, maintenance and other supplies in combat zones. The Army started allowing women to staff such support posts last year, and says it is complying with the 1994 policy.

"There seems to be a solution in search of a problem," Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the committee's leading Democrat, said of the GOP proposal.

Democrats said in a letter to Hunter on Tuesday that the provision "ties the hands of military commanders in a time of war when they are already dealing with many significant battlefield challenges."

Earlier, it was base closings that produced nearly an hour of impassioned debate by Republicans and Democrats whose districts would lose military installations under the Pentagon's sweeping proposal to cut costs.

In the House committee, amendments by Rep. Jeb Bradley, R-N.H., to terminate and delay this round of closings were soundly defeated. New England is in line to lose two major bases.

"We're at war and what on Earth is a nation at war doing closing bases," said Rep. Gene Taylor, R-Miss., whose state also is the list to have a major base shuttered.

"I'm afraid this train has left the station and I don't see a way we pull it back," said Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo.

Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., noted previous veto threats and said: "It would deep-six this bill if we were to pass this."

In the Senate, Republican senators from South Dakota, Arkansas, Maine, New Hampshire and Mississippi — states where major facilities are in jeopardy — introduced a bill to delay the base closings until the return of most troops from Iraq and the release of reports on the impact of closing bases.

Congressional efforts to halt the base-closings are considered long-shots. The president and congressional leaders all support closing bases.