Senate set for showdown over women in the draft
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The Senate is heading for a showdown over women registering for the draft.

Supporters of requiring women to sign up for Selective Service see the upper chamber as their last best hope for getting legislation to President Obama's desk.

They've turned their attention to the Senate after suffering a setback in the House, which last week dropped language requiring women to register from its version of the annual defense bill.

Proponents say women already have the green light to serve in combat roles, hurting the legal argument for excluding them from the draft. But opponents say Congress needs to spend more time studying the politically tricky issue instead of tucking it into a massive “must pass” bill.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has already included a requirement to open the draft to women in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a move that sparked outrage from conservatives.

The battle will come to a head on the Senate floor, where conservative opponents are expected to make a last stand to remove the provision. If successful they would effectively kill any chance of Congress approving the policy change.

But supporters got an unexpected boost as they fight to keep the language in the bill. Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDems confront Kelly after he calls some immigrants 'lazy' McConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Overnight Defense: Latest on spending fight - House passes stopgap with defense money while Senate nears two-year budget deal | Pentagon planning military parade for Trump | Afghan war will cost B in 2018 MORE (R-Ky.) said he supports the change, while noting he doesn’t expect the United States to return to the draft.

“Given where we are today, with women in the military performing virtually all kinds of functions, I personally think it would be appropriate for them to register just like men do,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters during a weekly press conference.

Though McConnell, as the Senate’s top Republican, would have strong influence in a floor debate, the proposal is dividing his caucus.

GOP Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSasse statement: Trump nominee who spread conspiracy theories has a ‘tinfoil hat’ Coalition of 44 groups calls for passage of drug pricing bill For the sake of our democracy, politicians must stop bickering MORE (Texas) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeRubio on push for paid family leave: ‘We still have to work on members of my own party’ National ad campaign pushes Congress to pass legislation lowering drug prices Senate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA MORE (Utah) both say they voted against the Armed Services committee’s defense bill, in part, because of the requirement that women sign up.

“I cannot in good conscience vote to draft our daughters into the military, sending them off to war and forcing them into combat,” Cruz, who ended his presidential campaign this month, said in a statement.

Though the Texas Republican didn’t mention the Senate’s upcoming debate he pledged to “continue my efforts to speak out against the effort to force America’s daughter into combat.”

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynDems confront Kelly after he calls some immigrants 'lazy' McConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration GOP senators turning Trump immigration framework into legislation MORE (R-Texas), McConnell’s No. 2, said the decision on women and the draft should be put on hold until “future circumstances” allow it.

“I’m not really sure why we’re talking about the draft. I don’t know anybody who supports the draft at this point, and I would leave that decision for future circumstances,” he told The Hill, asked if he supported requiring women to register for the Selective Service.

Both Armed Services Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Meghan McCain: Melania is 'my favorite Trump, by far' Kelly says Trump not likely to extend DACA deadline MORE—who will oversee the bill for Republicans on the floor—and Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeRepublican agenda clouded by division Overnight Regulation: Dems go on attack during EPA chief's hearing | Mnuchin promises more Russia sanctions | Regulators subpoena major bitcoin exchange | New lawsuit over FDA e-cig rule Dems go on the attack during EPA chief's hearing MORE (R-Okla.) have said they expect to see an amendment on the issue once the defense policy bill makes it to the Senate floor.

While McCain supports a gender-neutral draft, Inhofe said that he opposes the bill’s language and would support a proposal to remove it.

But opponents will need a majority of the Senate—51 votes—if they want to get it dropped from the legislation.

In a sign of the potential uphill battle they could face, a separate bill introduced in February stating that only Congress can modify the Military Selective Service Act has garnered only six cosponsors—all Republicans.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMcConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Overnight Tech: Uber exec says 'no justification' for covering up hack | Apple considers battery rebates | Regulators talk bitcoin | SpaceX launches world's most powerful rocket Overnight Cybersecurity: Tillerson proposes new cyber bureau at State | Senate bill would clarify cross-border data rules | Uber exec says 'no justification' for covering up breach MORE (R-S.C.), a close ally of McCain’s in the Senate, said he supports requiring women to sign up for the Selective Service.

“Women are now integrated in the military fully. They’ve performed exceptionally well,” he told The Hill. “I don’t think you’d want to take half of the population off the table, understanding the military is not going to put somebody in a situation they can’t handle.”

The U.S. military has been an all-volunteer force for more than forty years — the draft ended in 1973 — but the issue of women registering has come under the spotlight as the Pentagon opens up more roles to female soldiers.

Noting that women are already serving in combat-like roles, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump must send Russia powerful message through tougher actions McCain, Coons immigration bill sparks Trump backlash Taking a strong stance to protect election integrity MORE (R-Fla.), said during a New Hampshire presidential debate that he backs allowing women to sign up for the draft.

“I do believe that Selective Service should be opened up for both men and women in case a draft is ever instituted,” he said, asked if women should be required to sign up “in case of a national emergency.”

But—underscoring the political sensitivity of the topic—he appeared to make a distinction days later in South Carolina, saying that he doesn’t believe the United States still needs a draft.

“I do not support drafting women and forcing them to be combat soldiers. I don’t support that. I never have and I don’t now,” he added.

A Rasmussen Reports poll released earlier this year found that 49 percent of all likely U.S. voters think women should be required to register for the draft, compared to 44 percent who disagree.

Even if supporters win the fight in the Senate, they’ll face another fight with House lawmakers. The two chambers must reconcile their separate bills before sending the final version to Obama.

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) initially approved an amendment expanding the draft, with 26 Democrats and six Republicans on the committee supporting the proposal.

But the Rules Committee moved to strip the language, with the House formally removing the proposal as part of a larger procedural vote. House lawmakers didn’t vote specifically on the amendment, from Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), to remove the draft expansion.

Graham acknowledged that he isn’t sure the Senate could prevail in a conference committee.

While Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the House Armed Services chairman, is predicting the two chambers will be able to work out their differences, he stressed that Congress needs to spend more time reviewing the draft broadly.

“The big issue is we ought to study whether we need Selective Service or not," he told reporters.

"And then we'll deal with the other questions later.”