By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 19, 2005
In a bid to keep women out of combat, a House committee passed an amendment late last night that would block the U.S. military from allowing female troops into any new jobs related to ground operations without congressional approval.
The Republican-led House Armed Services Committee approved the measure to give Congress more control over which units the military opens to women and to put into law a 1994 Pentagon policy barring women from serving in "direct ground combat" units below the brigade level.
The amendment replaced an earlier measure, passed by the military personnel subcommittee May 11, that Army officials said would have closed to women at least 21,925 positions currently open to them. The Army strongly opposed that measure, and yesterday Republican lawmakers acknowledged that it had been a mistake. Unlike the previous amendment, which involved only women in the Army, yesterday's measure would cover women in all of the services.
The vote along party lines followed a heated debate over the role of female troops as more women in Iraq and Afghanistan are wounded, killed, and engaged in battle in insurgencies that defy the traditional military concept of a "front line."
"If . . . we don't want to see women killed, then maybe you should make a law that says women can't be in Iraq," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez (Calif.), who along with other Democrats on the committee voted against the amendment.
Opponents argued that the measure is unnecessary and could dampen women's willingness to serve in the military at a time when the Army in particular faces what senior Army officials call their most difficult recruiting environment in the history of the all-volunteer force.
Republican backers of the amendment said it is necessary to increase congressional scrutiny and control over the implementation of the 1994 policy on women in the military.
"The committee has taken action . . . to assume more proactive control over assignment policies governing units involved in ground combat," the panel said in language describing the amendment, put forth by Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.), chairman of the military personnel subcommittee.
The amendment passed on a voice vote after several Democratic countermeasures were defeated, including one by a vote of 32 to 30. The measure, which is an amendment to the fiscal 2006 defense authorization bill, will be sent to the full House.
The amendment requires the secretary of defense to submit to Congress by March a report that would detail what positions have been opened to women since the advent of the 1994 policy, as well as those that remain closed. Democrats pointed out that the amendment makes no mention of the main thrust of the 1994 policy, which was to "expand opportunities for women" and prevent any positions open to them from being closed.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman indicated in a statement that the Defense Department is satisfied with the existing policy, while acknowledging the impact of the changing nature of warfare. "Existing law and policy allow women to serve in a variety of capacities while balancing this nation's concerns about women in direct ground combat units," he said.
The Army is working closely with Congress, he said. "The reality is that the Army is faced with an increasingly asymmetric battlefield without the distinction of a front line. The Army is restructuring its forces in a way that makes sense to meet this new challenge," Whitman said.