WASHINGTON – The military would need congressional approval before putting women in new direct combat roles under a bill approved by a House committee, its Republican sponsors say.
But Democrats said it was unclear whom the provision would affect and argued it could drastically impact the way the services operate, especially in wartime.
After more than an hour of debate over just what exactly the provision would do, it was included in a bill that sets Defense Department policy and spending plans for the upcoming budget year. The House Armed Services Committee approved the bill early Thursday on a 61-1 vote. The Senate is working on its own Defense Department (search) bill.
President Bush requested $442 billion for defense for the budget year that begins Oct. 1, excluding money to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The House bill, like the Senate's version, envisions creating a $50 billion fund for the conflicts for next year -- but provides no money for it.
The measure also calls for increasing the military by 10,000 Army soldiers and 1,000 Marines, boosting pay grades for uniformed personnel by 3.1 percent and permanently providing all Reserve and Guard members access to military health care services.
In a nearly 15-hour committee hearing, the most contentious issue was the role of women in combat.
The language would put into law a Pentagon policy from 1994 that prohibits female troops in all four service branches from serving in units below brigade level whose primary mission is direct ground combat.
"Many Americans feel that women in combat or combat support positions is not a bridge we want to cross at this point," said Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., who sponsored the amendment.
It also allows the Pentagon to further exclude women from units in other instances, while requiring defense officials to get congressional approval when opening up positions to women. The amendment replaced language in the bill that applied only to the Army and banned women from some combat support positions.
The Army (search), Navy (search), Air Force (search) and Marine Corps (search) currently operate under a 10-year-old policy that prohibits women from "direct combat on the ground" but allows the services discretion to open some jobs to women in combat as needed.
"We're not taking away a single prerogative that the services now have," McHugh said.
He said the provision would not cause any jobs to be closed today that are open to women and he said it wouldn't yank women out of roles in which they currently are serving. He said it simply requires more oversight of the role of women in the military.
Democrats opposed the amendment, saying it would tie the hands of commanders who need flexibility during wartime. They accused Republicans of rushing through legislation without knowing the consequences or getting input from the military, and tried unsuccessfully to pass their own amendments to kill McHugh's provision.
"We are changing the dynamic of what has been the policy of this country for the last 10 years," said Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark.
Added Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the committee's leading Democrat: "There seems to be a solution in search of a problem."
Many Democrats said it was unclear exactly what McHugh's provision meant, given that it was proposed at the last minute without hearings. "Today, I really don't understand who this affects," Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., said.
The issue arose last week, when Republicans, at the behest of Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., added a provision that would have banned women from being assigned to "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.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld 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." He said the Army's attempt to reorganize and an asymmetrical front line on the battlefield muddies the issue.