A provision that would require women to register for the military draft alongside men for the first time in American history was included as part of the massive 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that passed the Senate handily on Tuesday with an 85-13 vote.
The language requiring the draft for women was added in committee and received little debate on the Senate floor, but has created a firestorm of controversy on and off Capitol Hill. It comes as the military services welcome women into previously closed ground combat units in keeping with a mandate from Defense Secretary Ash Carter given late last year.
On Feb. 2, a panel of top military leaders including Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus all told the Senate Armed Services Committee they supported drafting men and women in light of the changes to combat assignments.
“It is my personal view that based on this lifting of restriction for assigning [job specialties], that every American that is physically qualified should register for the draft,” Neller said at the time.
In the House, which previously passed its version of the NDAA, an amendment requiring women to register for the draft passed narrowly with a 32-30 vote, even though its author, California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, voted against it.
“I’ve talked to coffeehouse liberals in San Francisco and conservative families who pray three times a day,” Hunter said April 27, as the House Armed Services Committee marked up the bill. “Neither of them want their daughter to be drafted.”
The Senate proposal was hotly debated on the floor June 7 by Republicans Ted Cruz, from Texas, and John McCain, from Arizona.
Cruz complained that the provision including women in the draft entered the bill through committee, rather than in public, open debate.
“I’m the father of two daughters. Women can do anything they set their mind to, and I see that each and every day,” Cruz said. “The idea that we should forcibly conscript young girls in combat to my mind makes little or no sense. It is at minimum a radical proposition. I could not vote for a bill that did so without public debate.”
McCain countered that including women in the draft was a matter of equality.
“Women who I have spoken to in the military overwhelmingly believe that women are not only qualified, but are on the same basis as their male counterparts,” McCain said. “Every leader of the United States military seems to have a different opinion from [Cruz], whose military background is not extensive.”
Currently, U.S. law requires most male citizens and immigrants between the ages of 18 to 25 to register in the selective service system. The Senate NDAA would require all female citizens and U.S. residents who turn 18 on or after Jan. 1, 2018, to register as well.
Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah introduced an amendment that would have removed the draft language from the bill, but it was unsuccessful. Another Republican, Rand Paul of Kentucky, filed an amendment that would have gotten rid of the draft altogether, but it too failed to get traction.
The House and Senate must now reconcile their versions of the NDAA in conference before final passage.