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Bill aims to bar women from direct ground combat

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Bill aims to bar women from direct ground combat

http://www.cnn.com/2005/POLITICS/05/19/women.combat.ap/index.html

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Women in the military would be barred from serving in direct ground combat roles, under a House bill that sets Defense Department policy and spending plans for the upcoming budget year.

The House Armed Services Committee approved the overall measure early Thursday on a 61-1 vote. The same committee in the Senate passed a different version last week. The House and Senate are to vote on their respective bills next week.

President Bush requested $442 billion for defense for the budget year that begins October 1, excluding money to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The House bill, like the Senate's version, envisions creating a $50 billion fund for the conflicts for next year -- but provides no money for it.

The measure also calls for increasing the military by 10,000 Army soldiers and 1,000 Marines, boosting pay grades for uniformed personnel by 3.1 percent and permanently providing all Reserve and Guard members access to military health care services.

In a nearly 15-hourlong committee hearing, the most contentious issue was the role of women in combat.

The language would put into law a Pentagon policy from 1994 that prohibits female troops in all four service branches 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-New York, 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 that prohibits women from "direct combat on the ground" but allows the services discretion to open some jobs to women in combat as needed.

"We're not taking away a single prerogative that the services now have," McHugh said.

Democrats opposed the 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-Arkansas.

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-California, added 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.

Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Georgia, cast the lone dissenting vote on the overall bill.

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Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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