A House committee voted to prohibit women in the military from serving in direct ground combat roles Wednesday as part of a bill setting Defense Department policy and spending plans for the coming budget year.
By voice vote, an amendment was approved that would put into law a Pentagon policy from 1994 that prohibits female troops in all four services from serving in units below brigade level whose primary mission is direct ground combat.
“Many Americans feel that women in combat or combat support positions is not a bridge we want to cross at this point,” said Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., who sponsored the amendment.
It also allows the Pentagon to further exclude women from units in other instances, while requiring defense officials to notify Congress when opening up positions to women. The amendment replaced narrower language in the bill that applied only to the Army and banned women from some combat support positions.
The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps currently operate under a 10-year-old policy barring women from “direct combat on the ground” but allowing the services discretion to open some jobs to women.
“We’re not taking away a single prerogative that the services now have,” McHugh said.
The committee approved the measure as part of a bill that sets Pentagon policy and spending plans _ but provides no money _ for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.
The panel approved the overall bill on a 61-1 vote early Thursday. President Bush requested $442 billion for defense for the 2006 fiscal year, excluding money to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., cast the lone dissenting vote.
The Senate is working on it own version of the legislation.
Democrats opposed the women-in-combat amendment, saying it would tie the hands of commanders who need flexibility during wartime. They accused Republicans of rushing through legislation without knowing the consequences or getting input from the military.
“We are changing the dynamic of what has been the policy of this country for the last 10 years,” said Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark.
Added Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the committee’s leading Democrat: “There seems to be a solution in search of a problem.”
The issue arose last week, when Republicans, at the behest of Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., added to the overall bill a provision that would have banned women from being assigned to “forward support companies.”
Those units provide infantry, armor and artillery units with equipment, ammunition, maintenance and other supplies in combat zones. The Army started allowing women to staff such support posts last year and says it is complying with the 1994 policy.
Some Republicans aren’t so sure. “The Army is confused. They’re all over the place on this one,” Hunter said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday the Army is working with Congress and battlefield commanders “to find an appropriate way that’s consistent with our country’s view on that subject.” He said the Army’s attempt to reorganize and an asymmetrical front line on the battlefield muddies the issue.
The House bill, like a similar measure passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, envisions creating a $50 billion fund for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan next year. It also calls for increasing the size of the military by 10,000 Army soldiers and 1,000 Marines and boosting pay grades for uniformed personnel by 3.1 percent.
Earlier, the committee rejected efforts to block the new round of base closings after nearly an hour of impassioned debate by Republicans and Democrats whose districts would lose military installations under the Pentagon’s sweeping proposal to cut costs.
Amendments by Rep. Jeb Bradley, R-N.H., to terminate and delay this round of closings were soundly defeated. New England is in line to lose two major bases.
In the Senate, Republican senators from South Dakota, Arkansas, Maine, New Hampshire and Mississippi _ states where major facilities are in jeopardy _ introduced a bill to delay the base closings until the return of most troops from Iraq and the release of reports on the impact of closing bases.
Congressional efforts to halt the base-closings are considered long-shots. The president and congressional leaders all support closing bases.