updated 5/25/2005 1:56:03 PM ET 2005-05-25T17:56:03

In a retreat, House Republicans decided Wednesday to drop an effort that would have limited the role of women in combat.

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Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, under pressure from the Pentagon and lawmakers of both parties, moved to abandon a proposal that would have required the Pentagon to get congressional approval before opening additional jobs in combat zones to women.

Included in a defense spending bill that the House was debating Wednesday, the provision would have codified a 1994 Pentagon policy that bans women from working in direct ground combat units that are smaller than brigades.

60-day notice proposed
Instead, Hunter, Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, planned to propose that the Pentagon be allowed to continue deciding what positions women can serve in as long as they tell Congress about any proposed changes 60 legislative days beforehand.

“This puts Congress in a position where we have enough time to evaluate a policy change and react to that policy change,” the Californian said in an interview.

Hunter’s new proposal also would require the Pentagon to study how it assigns women to positions and report its findings to Congress.

Rep. Vic Snyder of Arkansas, top Democrat on the military personnel subcommittee, praised Hunter’s proposal, saying that it will “eliminate the terrible language” that sends “such a bad message to women in uniform.”

Confusion had been feared
Critics — both Democrats and Republicans — feared the earlier provision would have caused confusion among military commanders and soldiers, hurt recruitment and retention of women, and hindered the military’s ability to make staffing decisions in the battlefield. The Army expressed the same concerns.

Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., the only female military veteran in Congress, had planned to offer an amendment with a bipartisan group of House members that would have stripped the women-in-combat provision from the bill altogether. But she dropped her objection after discussing the new amendment with Hunter, R-Calif.

“We were right. This was unnecessary and unhelpful, and now it is gone,” Wilson said in an interview. “There will be no restrictions in statute for how the Army can assign women in the military.”

The Pentagon policy currently prohibits women from serving in infantry, armor, artillery or special forces units, but it allows the services to open some positions to women in combat zones as needed as long as they inform Congress of the change.

Rumsfeld opposed idea
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld opposed putting that policy into law, and was on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to discuss the bill with the House Rules Committee. Congressional aides say he urged Hunter to put forth compromise language.

“Secretary Rumsfeld has made it very clear publicly that he doesn’t support any change,” Rep. David Dreier of California, Republican chairman of the Rules Committee, said on the House floor Wednesday.

The women-in-combat issue arose two weeks ago when, at Hunter’s request, a military personnel subcommittee inserted language in the bill that the Army later said would have barred women from 21,925 jobs. The full Armed Services Committee replaced that language last week with a provision that would have put the Pentagon policy into law.

Hunter was concerned that the Army was not following the Pentagon policy by allowing women to serve in units that provided support to troops in combat zones. The Army contended it was in compliance.

Final bill vote expected soon
The House began debate Wednesday on the overall bill which sets next year’s defense policy and spending. A final vote was not expected until Thursday.

Approved a week ago by the Armed Services Committee, the bill authorizes the Bush administration to spend $490.7 billion for defense in the budget year that begins Oct. 1. That includes $49.1 billion to support operations in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as efforts to thwart terrorists worldwide.

However, the bill does not appropriate any money. That legislation will come later.

The measure before the House allows the Pentagon to spend billions on military supplies, including armored vehicles, night vision devices and jammers to defend against roadside bombs. It also permits the Army to increase its ranks by 10,000 and the Marine Corps to grow by 1,000. And, the measure would allow 3.1 percent pay increases for military personnel.

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