Dems take aim at limit on military women

Democrats yesterday lashed out at House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) for inserting language into a defense bill that would limit the service of women in the U.S. military.

In a strongly worded letter to Hunter, Democrats on the panel said the amendment on women in combat would tie the hands of military commanders “in a time of war when they are already dealing with many significant battlefield challenges.”

Democrats noted the Army’s opposition to the language and complained that the amendment “came to us literally in the middle of the night with no opportunity for meaningful discussion or debate. … With less than 24 hours before mark up, how can last-minute, unscrutinized changes be a good way of doing business?”

The controversial issue is expected to surface at a marathon session of the Armed Services Committee’s defense authorization markup today.

Last week, House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee Chairman John McHugh (R-N.Y.) amended the National Defense Authorization Act with a provision to remove women from units involved in combat support and combat service support. The amendment passed along party lines.

Army policy prohibits women from ground combat. The amendment is meant to keep women out of combat support jobs that could lead to direct combat involvement under the Army’s restructured units.

“The Hunter-McHugh amendment addresses the question of where and how female soldiers can be assigned most effectively in the armed forces. The amendment also addresses legitimate concerns about civilian control of the military. Will members of Congress, as representatives of the American people, have a say in formulating military personnel policies?” said Elaine Donnelly, president of the nonpartisan Center for Military Readiness.

The amendment is meant not to change policy but more to codify current policy and some gray areas, a committee staff member said. But the provision, which was introduced the evening before the markup, took Democratic subcommittee members by surprise.

Last week, Rep. Victor Snyder (D-Ark.) said, “We have had no hearing on this issue. No reports have been brought to our attention citing evidence that having women in these roles is currently causing a problem for our military.”

Reps. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) also expressed concern that such a provision would further affect Army recruitment and send a negative message to those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Democrats are planning to highlight the matter today.

“The women-in-combat issue is going to play up significantly,” a Democratic congressional aide said.

The Democrats’ letter emphasizes their problems with how Hunter has managed the bill: “There was no mention during our hearings of any necessity for a change, and without exception the military and civilian experts we have consulted since the surprise introduction of this amendment have agreed that this amendment is ill-advised.”

Democrats want Hunter to strike the amendment and to schedule hearings “so that we can have a full national discussion to determine if there is demonstrable need for any adjustment to policy.”
A spokesperson for Hunter did not return a phone call seeking comment.

In a related matter, Davis introduced an amendment last year and again this year that would have authorized abortions at U.S. military medical facilities overseas. The committee twice rejected the language. Current law prohibits abortions from being performed in such facilities, except to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape or incest. 

Davis’s aide said she will bring up the issue in full committee tomorrow.