WASHINGTON – House Republicans abandoned their own plan Wednesday to curb the role of women in combat zones after it ran into opposition from the Pentagon and lawmakers from both parties.
Instead, the GOP-controlled House decided to let the military continue determining which jobs women can hold, as long as defense officials give Congress advance word on any changes. The provision was included in a $491 billion defense bill that the chamber approved by a 390-39 vote.
Earlier, the House approved on a 428-1 vote a watered-down provision that lets the Pentagon (search) decide military jobs for women as long as it gives Congress 60 days notice — twice as much time as is currently required.
"There will be no restrictions in statute for how the Army can assign women in the military," said Rep. Heather Wilson (search), R-N.M. The only female veteran now serving in Congress, Wilson was a leading opponent of the plan that was dropped.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (search), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the House-passed provision guarantees that Congress will be involved if the services change their policies on which jobs are open to women.
"This puts Congress in a position where we have enough time to evaluate a policy change and react to that policy change," said Hunter, R-Calif. He had initiated a wider-ranging restriction that would have required an act of Congress to open up new positions to women.
The Senate is to vote on its own defense bill next month. An early version of it has no restrictions on women's jobs in the military.
The House measure authorizes the Bush administration to spend $491 billion for defense in the budget year that begins Oct. 1, though the actual money will be provided in later legislation. The total includes $49 billion to support operations in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and fight terrorism.
The measure allows the Pentagon to spend billions on military supplies, including armored vehicles, night vision devices and jammers to defend against roadside bombs.
It also permits the Army to increase its ranks by 10,000 and the Marine Corps to grow by 1,000. The measure also would allow 3.1 percent pay increases for military personnel.
Hoping to rein in skyrocketing costs, the bill also calls for revamping how the Pentagon buys weapons systems. It also requires the Pentagon to submit to Congress an annual review of its Future Combat System program, a high-tech family of fighting systems.
"By and large, this is a good bill. We worked hard on it," said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the lead Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. His GOP counterpart, Hunter, added that the bill gives "our troops the tools they need to get the job done."
Before passing the bill, the House defeated an attempt to delay the current round of domestic military base closings by one year and rejected an effort that would have called for the president to develop a plan for the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq.
By adopting the softer women-in-combat provision, the House killed the Hunter-initiated restriction that would have required an act of Congress for the Pentagon to open up new positions in combat zones to women.
The Californian was forced to give ground this week after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld objected and a bipartisan group of lawmakers prepared to try to kill any reference to women in combat in the bill.
Critics had argued that the provision would have caused confusion among military commanders and soldiers, hurt recruitment and retention of women and hindered the military's ability to make staffing decisions in the battlefield.
Currently, there are 2,823 military occupations open to women. That includes Army jobs in which women provide medical, maintenance and logistics support to units in combat zones.
An additional 191 positions are closed to women. These are mostly infantry, armor, artillery and special forces jobs.
A Pentagon policy in place since 1994 bars women from serving in direct ground combat units. It allows the services to open some positions to women in combat zones as needed as long as the military informs Congress of the change 30 days beforehand.
Under the House bill, that period would be 60 days. The Pentagon also would be required to study how it assigns women to jobs and report back to Congress.
Democrats applauded change as an improvement over the previous proposal, but some criticized Republican leaders on the Armed Services Committee who put forth two previous women-in-combat provisions before the third, significantly weaker, version finally was approved.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., likened the debate about women in combat to "the schoolyard bully taking your lunch money, getting caught, giving you half back, and then asking you to thank him for it."