WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress is on the verge of ordering young women to register for a military draft for the first time in history, touching off outrage among social conservatives who fear the move is another step toward blurring gender lines.
The female draft requirement, approved late Thursday by the Senate Armed Services Committee, could be as heated as the divisive debate over what public lavatories and locker rooms transgender people should use.
Opponents of expanding the draft may be unable to halt the momentum in favor of lifting the exclusion, which was triggered by the Pentagon's decision late last year to open all front-line combat jobs to women. After gender restrictions to military service were erased, the top uniformed officers in each of the military branches expressed support during congressional testimony for including women in a potential draft.
The Senate Armed Services Committee added a provision to its version of the annual defense policy bill that calls for women to sign up with the Selective Service within 30 days of turning 18 — just as men are — beginning in January 2018, according to a summary of the legislation released by the committee.
The House Armed Services Committee narrowly adopted a provision to its bill late last month to include women in Selective Service.
"This is a highly consequential — and, for many American families, a deeply controversial — decision that deserves to be resolved by Congress after a robust and transparent debate in front of the American people, instead of buried in an embargoed document that is passed every year to fund military pay and benefits," said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, one of three Senate Armed Services Committee members who voted against the policy bill.
Conservative columnist Daniel Horowitz wrote of the "consequences of completely eradicating the self-evident truth and science of the two sexes."
The full House is expected to take up its version of the legislation as early as next week. The Senate will consider its bill later this month.
While the subject is contentious, a return to forcing people to join the armed forces seems unlikely. Military leaders maintain the all-volunteer force is working and do not want a return to conscription. The U.S. has not had a military draft since 1973, in the waning years of the Vietnam War era. Still, all men between the ages of 18 and 25 are required by law to register.
"It's what a man's got to do," says the Selective Service website.
Women were nearly drafted during World War II due to a shortage of military nurses. But a surge of volunteers made it unnecessary, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who served with the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he believes most Americans don't want women to be drafted. Despite his objections, Hunter proposed — and then voted against — the amendment requiring women to register that the House Armed Services Committee approved in April.
Hunter said he offered the measure to force a discussion about how the Pentagon's decision to void gender restrictions on military service failed to consider whether the exclusion on drafting women also should be lifted. Like Lee, he argued that the call should be made by Congress.
The White House has declined to say whether President Barack Obama would sign into law legislation that expands the draft to include women.
A longstanding congressional ban on moving prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility to the United States also is included in the policy bill. The prohibition, which the White House opposes, has kept Obama from fulfilling a campaign pledge to shutter the facility.
The legislation also proposes to help shrink the remaining population at Guantanamo by allowing detainees to plead guilty to criminal charges in federal civilian courts via video teleconference. Those detainees could then be transferred to other countries to serve their sentences.
But the Center for Constitutional Rights, an advocacy group, opposed the change and said allowing pleas by remote video is an attempt to change the rules "in order to stymie the defense and afford the prosecution a greater chance to win these cases."
Overall, the defense policy bill provides $602 billion in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 for the Defense Department and nuclear weapons programs managed by the Energy Department.
The Senate committee did not follow the lead of its House counterpart, which shifted $18 billion in wartime spending to pay for additional weapons and troops to reverse what Republicans and a number of Democrats have called a crisis in the military's combat readiness.
The committee did identify $3 billion in savings from the defense budget proposed by the Obama administration "and redirected those funds toward critical needs of our warfighters," according to the summary. The committee also added $2 billion for additional training, depot maintenance and weapons sustainment.
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