Hunter scales back female combat rule

In the wake of pressure from the Pentagon and Democrats, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) backed down yesterday on an amendment to the defense authorization bill that would have barred women in the military from serving in certain combat roles.

Hunter decided yesterday to soften the language on an amendment that his committee passed last week. The House voted 428-1 in favor of the amendment.

The debate over the role of women in combat started brewing when the committee’s Personnel Subcommittee chairman, Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), introduced a provision that would have specifically prohibited women from serving in forward-deployed combat-support units, which take care of supplies, maintenance and medical support.

McHugh’s provision passed by voice vote along party lines but sparked an outcry from Democrats who opposed the provision. They rebuked the Republicans for taking them by surprise with the amendment. Hunter urged the Pentagon to ensure that any reorganization of Army units under the service’s modernization plan will pay specific attention to minimally exposing female soldiers to direct combat.

Under Pentagon policy written in 1994 and still in effect today, women are prohibited from assignments in units below the brigade level that engage in direct combat on the ground. Such units could be field artillery units, special forces and infantry. Current law requires the Defense Department to give Congress a 30-day notice before opening up positions that are closed to women. In the new amendment, accepted by the Rules Committee yesterday and introduced on the floor today, Hunter asked for notice of 60 legislative days before opening those positions to women.

In the floor debate yesterday, McHugh defended the earlier versions of the amendment, saying the language would not have disqualified women from any job that was open to them. “They can’t be excluded from jobs open to them,” he said.

McHugh added that the military is confused about its own policies. Recounting discussions with the Pentagon in the past few weeks, he said that he asked, “Doesn’t it trouble you when you say that … it confuses your commanders when they see something that is in your policy?” He added, “It merely stated what was already in the policy.”

The decision of the Rules Committee to allow Hunter’s water-downed amendment to be introduced on the House floor, met with critical agreement from the Democrats.

“This legislation is the third attempt by House Republicans to limit the role of women in the military. With each successive proposal, the Republicans have been forced to scale back the restrictions they wish to impose,” said Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), ranking member of the Armed Services Committee. “The final provision simply requires more detailed reporting if the services want to expand the role of women and establishes a longer waiting period following notice to Congress before those changes can go into effect.”

The Rules Committee yesterday rejected a bipartisan amendment sponsored by Skelton that would have erased the language in the amendment passed by the committee.

“The issue of women in our military should be considered in a deliberative manner, with hearings and analysis, none of which occurred before these provisions were brought to us,” said Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.). “While changing this policy in such a cavalier fashion is disrespectful of our men and women in uniform, at least the majority now recognizes that their previous amendments need to be abandoned.”