Facing likely defeat, House Republican leaders Wednesday retreated from an effort to write into law limits on the combat support missions of women in the military.

“We had the votes,” said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., an Air Force Academy graduate who joined with Democrats to back down the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.

The committee last week adopted a provision in the defense bill that wrote into statute a 1994 Army policy barring the assignment of women to combat brigades. It would have applied the policy to all services.

Supporters of the committee’s provision pointed to the deaths of more than 30 women servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan and complained that the Pentagon wasn’t following its own policy in assigning women to medical and maintenance units supporting combat troops.

Hunter said the provision would not have affected women currently assigned to combat support. But Wilson said that wasn’t clear and that the provision intruded on decisions best left to generals and admirals.

“This would have been the first time in American history to put into statute limitations on the assignment of women,” said Wilson.

Wilson had been prepared to join Democrats Ike Skelton of Missouri and Vic Snyder of Arkansas in offering an amendment to strip the women-in-combat language from the bill.

But after a day of negotiations that lasted well into Tuesday night, House Republican leaders decided to remove the provision as part of the rules package limiting amendments on the bill.

“I don’t think anybody in the (Republican) leadership wanted to see a chairman fight for something and publicly lose. And I had no desire to humiliate anybody,” Wilson said.

In its place, the bill will now call for a study of women’s assignments in the military, which the Pentagon was already doing, and a 60-day notice to Congress in advance of any changes to the policy. A 30-day notice now is required.

Hunter faced opposition not only from women, but also from House Majority Whip Roy Blount, R-Mo., and the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “has made it clear publicly he does not support any change,” said House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif.

Snyder said that in Little Rock, Ark., over the weekend he talked to women members of the National Guard who had just returned from Iraq.

“They were incensed by it. They said, ‘Those people are taking us back to the Stone Age,’ ” said Snyder.

(Contact James. W. Brosnan at brosnanj(at)shns.com)