House and Senate negotiators reached agreement Tuesday on a sweeping defense policy bill that rejects a plan to force women to register for a military draft, a victory for social conservatives who decried the move as another step toward the blurring of gender lines.
The $611 billion bill, which authorizes spending for military programs, also hands Democrats a win: Lawmakers struck a provision that liberals said would undercut protections against workplace discrimination based on sexual or gender orientation.
Congressional staff briefed reporters on the legislation, which has not been released. The staffers were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A vote in the House on the defense bill is expected by Friday, followed by action in the Senate next week.
The must-pass policy legislation may trigger a veto threat from President Barack Obama over language that bars closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and forbids the Pentagon from beginning a new round of military base closings. The bill also mandates a pay raise for service members larger than the one the Obama administration proposed and stops further reductions in the numbers of active-duty troops.
Lawmakers had worked for weeks to resolve differences in separate versions of the policy bills passed by the House and Senate. The House, for example, wanted to shift $18 billion from the emergency wartime spending account to pay for additional weapons and combat gear the Pentagon didn't request.
The negotiators elected instead to boost the wartime account, which isn't constrained by mandatory budget limits, by $3.2 billion to help halt a decline in the military's ability to respond to global threats. The decision may have been motivated by President-elect Donald Trump's assurances that he would increase defense spending, adding tens of thousands more troops and investing in new warships and jet fighters.
The legislation also includes the $5.8 billion in additional war-related funding Obama requested earlier this month. The so-called supplemental includes $2.5 billion to maintain elevated U.S. troops levels of 8,400 in Afghanistan as announced over the summer. About $383 million would pay for air strikes against Islamic State militants.
Requiring women to sign up for a possible draft roiled conservatives, who argued the country wasn't ready for such a dramatic change in policy without an open and extended debate.
A provision in the Senate version of the policy bill would have ordered women to sign up with the Selective Service within 30 days of turning 18 — just as men are — starting in January 2018. But the House refused to go along. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, spoke for a number of Republicans when he described the provision as "coercing America's daughters" into draft registration.
But proponents of including women viewed the requirement as a sensible step toward gender equality. They pointed to the Pentagon's decision last year to open all front-line combat jobs to women as removing any justification for gender restrictions on registration.
After the military services were ordered to integrate women into combat jobs, the top uniformed officers in each of the military branches expressed support during congressional testimony for including women in a draft pool. Military leaders maintain the all-volunteer force is working and oppose 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, young men between the ages of 18 and 25 are required to register with the Selective Service, the independent federal agency that manages the draft registration.
Democrats had just as vigorously opposed a measure in the House version of the legislation known as the Russell amendment, named after its author, Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla. They called the provision dangerous and insisted it be removed.
The amendment is brief and requires any U.S. government office to provide protections and exemptions "to any religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution, or religious society that is a recipient of or offeror" for a federal contract.
A group of Senate Democrats wrote in a letter last month that the provision would amount to government-sponsored discrimination by permitting religiously affiliated federal contractors to refuse to interview a job candidate whose faith differs from theirs and to fire employees who marry their same-sex partners or use birth control.
But Republicans dismissed those concerns. They cast the measure as a safeguard for religious liberty that merely builds on existing law by ensuring that faith-based organizations that perform work for the U.S. government aren't forced to act against their beliefs.