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.

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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 McConnellTrump: McConnell 'helpless' to stop Biden from packing court Senate GOP opens door to earmarks McConnell sidesteps Trump calling him 'dumb son of a b----' 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 CruzBoehner: 'There's a lot of leaders in the Republican Party' Biden picks vocal Trump critics to lead immigration agencies Boehner: Trump 'stepped all over their loyalty' by lying to followers MORE (Texas) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeHillicon Valley: Biden nominates former NSA deputy director to serve as cyber czar | Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after all | Biden pressed on semiconductor production amid shortage Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after pushback from Klobuchar, Lee Biden picks vocal Trump critics to lead immigration agencies 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 CornynOn The Money: Biden seeks GOP support for infrastructure plan | Democrats debate tax hikes on wealthy | Biden, Congress target semiconductor shortage Hillicon Valley: Biden nominates former NSA deputy director to serve as cyber czar | Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after all | Biden pressed on semiconductor production amid shortage Lawmakers, industry call on Biden to fund semiconductor production amid shortage 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 McCainSylvester Stallone reportedly joins Trump's Mar-a-Lago The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden meets with bipartisan lawmakers for infrastructure negotiations Cindy McCain to be named Biden ambassador to UN program: report MORE—who will oversee the bill for Republicans on the floor—and Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeBiden defense budget criticized by Republicans, progressives alike Sanders expresses 'serious concerns' with Biden's defense increase Senate GOP slams Biden defense budget 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 GrahamMSNBC's Joy Reid pans Manchin, Sinema as the 'no progress caucus' Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists Biden defense budget criticized by Republicans, progressives alike 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 RubioNikki Haley says if Trump runs for president in 2024 then she won't Trump's early endorsements reveal GOP rift The Memo: Biden's five biggest foreign policy challenges 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.”