WASHINGTON — In a major reversal, congressional Republicans on Wednesday abandoned an effort to limit the role of women in combat and instead instructed the Pentagon to keep Congress informed about the status of women deployed in war zones.
The compromise, part of a $490.7-billion defense spending bill for 2006, marked a retreat from a campaign by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and other Republicans to restrict the role of women in the military.
That plan raised hackles across Washington, drawing the opposition of Army Secretary Francis Harvey, the American Civil Liberties Union and lawmakers of both parties.
Commanders feared that any new restrictions on women in combat would make it more difficult to fill the ranks at a time when wars on two fronts have dampened enthusiasm among young Americans to enlist and have left the Army missing its recruiting targets.
Democrats on Capitol Hill derided it as a sexist effort to carve into law a special -- and reduced -- status for women in uniform.
"At a time when our armed forces are overstretched, we shouldn't be turning away people who want to serve their country," said Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Walnut Creek).
Invoking the names of two female soldiers captured by Iraqi insurgents and later freed, she added, "This step is a slap in the face to the Jessica Lynches and Shoshana Johnsons of our military, who served our nation ably and nobly."
The measure on women in combat was stripped from the defense bill that authorized $441.6 billion in regular defense spending plus $49.1 billion in emergency budget authority to support costs related to the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The overall bill, approved on a 390-39 vote, would provide a 3.1% pay raise to military personnel and authorize 10,000 more Army soldiers and 1,000 more Marines. The bill also includes $3.4 billion for the Army's next generation of combat vehicles and weapons systems, and $7.9 billion for ballistic missile defense. Those numbers could change when the Senate takes up its version of the defense bill.
As of Wednesday, 35 women were among the 1,649 American troops who had been killed in Iraq, and six female troops had been killed in Afghanistan.
Another 279 women in Iraq and three in Afghanistan had been injured. Women comprise 22,020, or nearly 10%, of the 232,974 U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and surrounding regions.
In his proposal on women in combat, Hunter sought to codify a 1994 Pentagon policy that barred women from serving in most direct combat roles in armor, artillery, infantry and Special Forces units. It allowed them to serve in the military police and, since last year, in combat support jobs.
The policy, based on Cold War-era concepts of warfare, was rendered partly moot by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan who do not distinguish between troops on front lines and those on theoretically safer missions elsewhere, such as escorting cargo convoys.
Women now serve as gunners atop Humvees on perilous Iraqi streets. Hunter was particularly concerned that women were allowed to serve in armored Stryker vehicles that are used in combat situations.
In proposing stricter laws, Hunter said he feared that the Pentagon was violating the 1994 rules and placing women at risk. Hunter agreed to the compromise Wednesday after meeting Tuesday with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, although Pentagon officials stopped short of saying that Rumsfeld opposed Hunter's earlier legislative wording.
The final measure would require the Pentagon to give Congress 60 days' notice -- instead of the previous 30 days -- before changing the role of female troops. The compromise was approved by a vote of 428 to 1.
"It has always been our intent to inject Congress into any policy changes that the Department of Defense may propose regarding the assignment of women to units such as infantry, armor and artillery," Hunter said. "This provision does that."
Rumsfeld, apparently satisfied, wrote Hunter on Wednesday, saying, "I do not anticipate any shift in present department policies, nor in the quality and scope of opportunities available to military women."
The battle to oppose the measure was led by Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), the only female veteran in Congress.
"In the history of this country, there has never been a law limiting the assignment of women in the Army, and we will not do so now," Wilson said.
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More than 300 U.S. service-women have been wounded or killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
*--* Iraq Afghanistan Killed (Hostile) 23 0 Killed (Non hostile) 12 6 Wounded 279 3 Total casualties 314 9
Source: Department of Defense