President Carter will decide by Feb. 9 whether to propose the registration of women as well as men for the military draft, White House officials said yesterday. Responding to a torrent of questions raised by the president's call for the resumptin of registration in his State of the Union address Wednesday night, the officials described a planned registration system that initially would be only a shadow of the complex Selective Service System that was ended in June 1973.
John White, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, said the registration would be handled by the Postal Service. Young men -- and women if Congress includes them, as Carter is considered likely to recommend -- would be required to fill out a "simple form" at their local post office, with the information to be stored in Selective Service System computers, he said.
But draft cards would not be issued, there would be no physical examinations and no classification of registrants according to martital or other status under the maze of exemptions used in the past by the Selective Service System, White said. o
He said local draft boards would not immediately become active, but will be reconstituted and held in "a reserve status."
Among the major unanswered questions facing the administration yesterday was the age range during which registration would be required. Currently the Selective Service System law authorizes the registration of men between the ages of 18 and 26, a group that numbers some 16 million Americans. But White said this age range may be narrowed under the new registration system, depending on the size of the manpower pool sought by the government.
White said it would be "several months" before the registration of men begins, and that registration of women, if they are included, will take longer because it would require legislation and undoubtedly set off a sharp debate in Congress.
The issue of including women in the registration system remained the chief unanswered question yesterday. Officials insisted repeatedly that Carter has not made up his mind on this issue, and they brushed aside questions about why this is so since the administration has had the possible resumption of registration under study for several months.
Asked why the president Wednesday night left millions of young American women "dangling" over the question of whether they will be required to register for military service for the first time in history, White House press secretary Jody Powell replied:
You may overemphasize the psychological trauma of filling out a form."
Carter seems highly likely to propose that women be included in the registration system. A continuation of the exemption of women would be criticized as inconsistent with his strong advocacy of the Equal Rights Ammendment and other measures designed to assure equality of the sexes. Moreover, Defense Secretary Harold Brown, speaking for the administration, testified last summer that any registration system should be applied to women as well as men.
The president is required by law to report to Congress by Feb. 9 on a study of the Selective Service System, in effect setting a deadline for a decision on including women.
But the registration of women for military service still would be a long way from a decision to draft women. At present , Carter lacks authority to draft anyone and would have to seek that power from Congress before imposing military conscription. At that point the question of drafting women would have to be faced squarely.
The impositin of the draft would also force the Selective Service System to begin classifying its registrants according to their fitness and eligibility for military service. But for the moment, White said, every young man in the final registration age range will be required to register, regardless of whether they are married, fathers, or sole supporters of families.
Opponents of the registration plan vowed yesterday to seek to block it. Barry Lynn, a spokesman for a coalition of 42 peace, student and civil rights groups, said it is "absolutely committed to an all-out effort to prevent draft registration" and will resort to picketing and demonstrations in the effort.
But most of the opponents also agreed that if registration is required, it should include women. "We are outraged at any form of drafting," said Jane madamba, an official of the U.S. Student Association. "But if registration begins, we are opposed to there being exceptions, including college students and women."
However, Phyllis Schlafly, a leading opponent of the Equal Rights Ammendment, announced that she is starting a national petition drive to exempt women from registration. "It's been the plan all along of the Equal Rights Amendment proponents to draft women and put them in combat," she said.