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Congress wants say in women in combat debate

Jan. 30, 2013 - 01:16PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 30, 2013 - 01:16PM  |  
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Two efforts are underway to give Congress a say in lifting the combat exclusion for military women.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., proposes to specifically bar women from permanent assignments to some specialties, such as special operations units, through legislation he likely will try to attach to the 2014 defense authorization bill.

Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, seeks to limit by law the scope of changes underway as a result of the Jan. 24 Defense Department announcement that combat exclusion polices have been repealed.

A different idea is brewing in the House. Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., no advocate for opening direct combat jobs to women, is considering what could be bipartisan legislation that would not ban women from any assignments, but would require gender-neutral standards for all military specialties, with those standards required to guarantee the most effective fighting force.

Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, isn't ready to talk about details.

"In the end, when all is said and done, the primary objective of maintaining the highest quality and most effective force won't change," he said in a statement responding to questions about his plans.

"Regardless of where anybody is on the policy, there seems to be consensus far and wide that standards need to stay neutral," Hunter said. "It is about the individual and the job they train to do, and especially for combat specialties. It's important that we continue maintaining high quality standards."

Gender-neutral standards based on maintaining a strong fighting force could, in the end, have the same result as specifically barring women from direct combat positions without the same political message of opposing equal opportunity, according to House aides working on the issue.

While it sounds similar to what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta already promised, setting this requirement in law, rather than relying on policy, would prevent future changes without congressional involvement that might lower standards for women in order to expand their assignment and career potential, aides said.

Whatever Hunter does also is likely to be proposed as an amendment to the annual defense bill, making it unlikely to take effect before Oct. 1, at the soonest.

In announcing they had repealed combat assignment restrictions, defense officials said changes would not happen until the services submit implementation plans and Congress is notified of any changes. Service implementation plans are to be delivered by mid-May, with extended discussions expected over any specialty or assignment that would remain closed to women.

Congressional aides said they expect both practical restrictions, such as the difficulty of providing separate male and female berthing areas on some smaller Navy ships, and physical restrictions involving size and strength, that will require review. The complete defense-wide review might not be finished before 2016.

Inhofe, who was a member of the House Armed Services Committee in 1994, when combat assignment rules for women were last changed, said he doesn't want the services to rush.

"Because that policy has worked so well for so long, I am concerned about the potential impacts of completely ending this policy," he said in a statement.

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