The Senate made history Tuesday by passing a $602 billion defense bill that crucially includes an amendment requiring women to register for the draft.
The bill is supported by both Republicans and Democrats and expands military Selective Service requirements to female citizens aged 18-26. It could be implemented as early as 2018.
The Senate voted 85 to 13 to pass the National Defense Authorization Act, which included the critical provision for women. Not registering with selective service could stop women from accessing federal financial aid such as Pell grants. Supporters of women serving in combat roles are calling the bill a major step forward for women’s participation in the military.
Currently, the Selective Service requirement applies to all male U.S. citizens and male immigrants who are 18 through 25. It is illegal not to register, and can impact young men seeking federal employment or student loans.
Some Republican senators protested the inclusion of the measure. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called it a “radical departure” from American history.
“The idea that we should forcibly conscript young girls into combat to my mind makes little or no sense,” he said, later adding: “It is being used as a vehicle to further agendas that have nothing to do with actually defending America. Despite the many laudable objectives in this bill, I could not in good conscience vote to draft our daughters into the military, sending them off to war and forcing them into combat.”
Supporters included Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-K.y., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Committee. McCain called including women in the draft “simply fair” since the Pentagon has opened all military roles to women. McCain was a naval aviator and prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
“Every uniform leader of the United States military seemed to have a different opinion from the senator from Texas, whose military background is not extensive,” McCain said in a pointed jab at Cruz’s lack of military experience.
The Senate’s bill still needs to go through a reconciliation process with a different House version of the legislation.
The House of Representatives may bring Congress to a standstill and stall the process. The House had originally included the provision in their underlying military spending bill after Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., introduced it to make a point against women serving in combat roles.
Hunter ended up voting against his own amendment. According to the Washington Post, his “gamble that committee members would shy away from forcing women into the draft backfired when a slim majority – including five Republicans – opted to endorse the measure by a vote of 32 to 30.”
The provision passed in the committee, but the provision was stripped out of the bill by Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, in the House Rules Committee before it went to the floor.
“I regretfully introduce this amendment,” Hunter said at the time he introduced it. “My daughters talk about serving. My son talks about serving, but I don’t want to put my daughters in a place where they have to get drafted.”
The White House has threatened to veto the defense bill due to other provisions that the administration’s Office of Management and Budget called “attempts to micromanage” the Department of Defense. However, the overwhelming number of senators who approved the bill would be more than enough to override a veto.
As the House and the Senate debate how to move forward with the legislation in conference committee, experts have said that the change is coming one way or another.
“I think the change is inevitable,” Nora Bensahel, a military policy analyst at American University’s School of International Service told the New York Times. “Whether in this debate or through the courts. It just seems that now that you have women allowed to serve in any position in the military, there is no logical basis to say women should not be drafted.”
When all military roles opened to women, the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller, and the chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Mark Milley, voiced their support for the inclusion of women in the Selective Service. The U.S. Marine Corps had opposed the opening of certain combat specializations to women.
Drafting women has been a contentious issue due to physiological and psychological differences between men and women.
Penny Nance, spokeswoman for Concerned Women for America, wrote in a statement: “John McCain, Mitch McConnell, and other senators think your daughter should be drafted into combat. We have gone from debating whether or not women should serve in combat to some advocating that they should be forced to serve in combat. Leadership should know better than to disregard basic biology in order to embrace political correctness.”
She added, “Our military’s sole purpose is to protect our nation, not to serve as this administration’s laboratory for social engineering. Peak childbearing years for women continue to be cited at 20-35, an age range in line with the 18-26 age group affected by this policy that ignores basic biology. We firmly believe in the equality of men and women, but that does not require us to ignore the physical differences and unique risks to women in combat particularly in the case of capture.”
Nance stressed that the discussion “should revolve around combat readiness, efficiency, and national security, and weeding through applicants that are overwhelmingly biologically unable to meet combat standards would be a logistical nightmare and would force the lowering of combat standards.”
She cited radical Islamic terror as the nation’s greatest security threat right now, which raises the specter of American women captured.
“The torture, repeated rape, and humiliation that would face female POWs would be unthinkable. Women who understand these risks and who bravely choose to serve regardless are different from women who are chosen to serve based on the day they were born,” Nance wrote.