Congress Still Sending Mixed Signals on Women in the Draft

A Marine Corps drill Instructor commands a recruit to run in place during a function in Van Nuys, California, on March 12, 2016. Alicia R. Leaders/Marine Corps
A Marine Corps drill Instructor commands a recruit to run in place during a function in Van Nuys, California, on March 12, 2016. Alicia R. Leaders/Marine Corps

WASHINGTON -- Despite key votes in Congress, it remained unclear Friday whether the United States is closer to a historic move requiring women to register for the military draft.

The Senate was wrapping up an annual defense bill that calls for opening the Selective Service to women despite opposition from some conservative lawmakers. Meanwhile, the House reached an opposite outcome in May when Republicans successfully blocked a measure integrating the draft.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle cried foul, claiming the issue did not get adequate debate. Now, as Congress pushes ahead with its annual defense budget, the House and Senate face brokering a compromise between lawmakers who are deeply divided over requiring women between 18-25 years old to register with Selective Service -- and potentially forcing them to the front lines of future wars.

"I am the father of two daughters. Women can do anything they put their minds to ... But the idea that we should forcibly conscript young girls into combat to my mind makes little to no sense," said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. "I could not vote for a bill that did so, particularly a bill that did so without public debate."

Cruz was among conservatives who rallied around a proposal by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to strip the draft language from the National Defense Authorization Act in the Senate.

But lawmakers never got to weigh in.

Senators agreed Friday to move forward on the massive $602-billion military policy bill without considering Lee's change. His staff said there was virtually no chance it would receive a vote.

The defense policy bill was expected to be passed by the Senate as early as Tuesday.

The chamber's push to open the draft is backed by many Democrats as well as Republicans.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, cited wide support within the military for the change and said women senators on his committee believe it would be a step toward equality.

"The fact is that every single military leader in this country, both men and women members of the uniformed military leadership of this country, believe that it is simply fair," McCain said.

Military brass began to weigh in on the draft issue earlier this year after the Defense Department moved to fully integrated women into all combat roles. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter ordered 225,000 all-male positions -- the last that excluded women -- would be open to female troops.

In February, Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said there is no longer justification for exempting women from the Selective Service and other military leaders have since voiced the same conclusion. All eligible men between 18-25 years old must register for the draft.

But the House slammed the breaks on draft integration last month with its version of the annual defense budget bill.

In an unusual move, the Republican-controlled Rules Committee removed language opening the draft to women from the NDAA just before a final floor vote.

The chairman of the committee, Rep. Pete Sessions, of Texas, is an opponent of integration and had also filed an amendment to remove it from the bill.

The committee scuttled any further debate. Democrats had been hopeful after the House Armed Services Committee -- in a surprise move -- had voted in favor of women in the draft. Normally that would have put the issue to a vote before the entire House.

"Now, Republicans have used a procedural trick to overturn a decision by members of the House regarding women's equality in the Selective Service," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, the ranking member on the Military Oversight Committee.


Two Minute Brief: Women in the U.S. Military

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