- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

House Republicans yesterday backed off their proposal to freeze the number of positions open to Army women in ground operations, after dissenting party members and Democrats appeared to have the votes to defeat the measure.

Instead, the House approved 428-1 a fallback proposal from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, California Republican, that gives Congress more time to override the Army if the service ever made what the lawmaker called “a profound decision” to end the Pentagon’s long-standing ban on women in direct land combat.

Mr. Hunter scrapped his earlier proposal to freeze positions, after negotiating a compromise with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and facing a revolt from some Republicans uneasy about the political message that it was sending.

“It’s good for the Republican team to be together on this issue,” Mr. Hunter told The Washington Times yesterday.

Rep. Heather A. Wilson, New Mexico Republican and an Air Force Academy graduate, had been gathering support for her amendment to strike Mr. Hunter’s original proposal from the defense-spending bill for fiscal 2006. She agreed to yesterday’s compromise. “There has never been a law limiting the assignment of women in the Army, and we will not do that today,” Mrs. Wilson said.

Rep. Vic Snyder, Arkansas Democrat, said, “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. 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.”

The $491 billion defense-spending bill passed the House later last night on a 390-39 vote. It has almost $50 billion to fight terrorism and support war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A 3.1 percent pay increase for military personnel also is included.

The women-in-combat issue arose because some conservative activists and officers inside the Army think the Army is violating the ban on women in ground combat by assigning them to forward support companies (FSCs) in Iraq.

Mr. Hunter’s new amendment is a step back from his committee-approved language that would make the Pentagon’s regulatory ban a federal law. That approach would have forced the military branches to first get Congress’ approval before changing women’s roles.

The measure that passed yesterday requires the Pentagon to give notice of 60 legislative days — instead of the current 30 — before making a change, a move that would give lawmakers adequate time to vote to overrule.

“It injects Congress into any policy changes that are made,” Mr. Hunter said in the interview, contending that it accomplishes the same objective as having the ban codified in federal law.

Mr. Hunter said the bill also requires that the defense secretary next year certify to Congress that the services — and especially the Army’s new modular brigades — are complying with the ban. The Army maintains that it is.

“What I’m going to do at this point, we’re going to take the Army at their word,” Mr. Hunter said. “But the secretary is clearly focused on this area now and will have a requirement to oversee the policy himself and ensure the policy is complied with.”

Some Republicans have grumbled privately that Mr. Rumsfeld has not paid sufficient attention to how the Army is using female soldiers in its newly transformed brigades fighting in Iraq, where 34 female soldiers have been killed.

The Pentagon in 1994 opened air and sea combat jobs to women, but retained a ban on ground combat units and any support unit that collocates, or embeds, with units that routinely engage in ground warfare.

Elaine Donnelly, who heads the Center for Military Readiness, received information that the 3rd Infantry Division, which is in Iraq, was violating the collocation rule in the way it deployed mixed-sex forward support companies.

“Chairman Duncan Hunter and colleagues who supported him have paid a high compliment to military women by stepping forward and taking this issue seriously,” Mrs. Donnelly said yesterday. “Greater vigilance in Congress will help to resolve an ongoing problem. Instead of following law and policy, Army officials have been bending, breaking, redefining or circumventing the rules on women in or near direct ground combat.”

Army officials told the Armed Services staff that it was complying with the collocation rule by pulling women out of FSCs when they embed with units that are in combat.

At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan commented on the House debate by noting the changing nature of the battlefield in Iraq.

“The policy of the Department of the Defense has been and continues to be that women should not be in direct ground combat roles. And we support that policy,” Mr. McClellan said. “But we also have to move forward. And the secretary of defense has been working closely with congressional leaders on this very issue. And as we move forward, we have to look at how the battlefield has changed and how to address those changes.”

Bill Sammon contributed to this report.

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