Conservatives riled up over registering women for draft

They believe it will motivate the GOP base in 2022

Marine Recruit Haley Evans trains at Parris Island, S.C., in 2013. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Marine Recruit Haley Evans trains at Parris Island, S.C., in 2013. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Posted July 23, 2021 at 5:52pm

Conservatives are expressing outrage about a pending Senate defense policy bill that would require women to register for the draft, and two defense hawks opposed the measure in the Armed Services Committee over the issue.

The Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act, which the committee approved on July 21, contains an amendment by the panel’s chairman, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, that would require women to sign up with Selective Service, just as men do between the ages of 18 and 25. If enacted, women could be drafted into military service in the event of a national emergency, though there is no prospect of that on the horizon, and no American has been drafted in nearly half a century.

If the bill becomes law in its present form, women would have to start registering one year after enactment of the NDAA, a knowledgeable Senate aide told CQ Roll Call. 

But while most of the committee’s Republicans voted for the amendment, five voted “no,” senators and aides disclosed. And two of them, who normally are strong advocates for supporting the military — Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri — voted against the Pentagon authorization bill because of their concerns about the draft issue, their aides revealed Friday. 

The committee divulged in a statement Thursday that its final vote on approval of the NDAA was 23-3. That vote count was the only tally from the markup that has been made public, even though numerous amendments were considered. Moreover, the panel has not yet officially disclosed which way any individual senator voted in the closed-door proceeding.

But Cotton tweeted Friday his opposition to women registering with the Selective Service. 

“Our military has welcomed women for decades and are stronger for it,” he said. “But America’s daughters shouldn’t be drafted against their will. I opposed this amendment in committee, and I’ll work to remove it before the defense bill passes.”

Hawley also tweeted about the issue Friday.

“I voted against forcing women to enter the draft, and here’s why,” he said. “American women have heroically served in and alongside our fighting forces since our nation’s founding. It’s one thing to allow American women to choose this service, but it’s quite another to force it upon our daughters, sisters, and wives. Missourians feel strongly that compelling women to fight our wars is wrong and so do I.”

‘Daughters and granddaughters’

In the July 21 vote on approval of the NDAA in the committee, the only other “no” vote, besides Cotton and Hawley, was cast by Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a critic of Pentagon spending who regularly votes against the NDAA. Prior to that committee approval vote, the amendment on women in Selective Service had come up. And it was adopted over the opposition of five Republicans, aides said. 

In addition to Hawley and Cotton, the other opponents were James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is the Armed Services ranking member, Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Mike Rounds of South Dakota, the aides said. 

“I support our military’s efforts to offer more opportunities for women who want to volunteer to serve,” Wicker told CQ Roll Call in a statement. “But when I think of my own daughters and granddaughters, I could not in good conscience support an amendment that would compel their military service.”

Six years of debate

The debate about whether women should have to sign up for the draft began in earnest in 2015, when women were for the first time permitted to perform “combat” functions in the military.

But Congress was unable to decide whether to require them to register for the draft and deferred instead to a blue-ribbon panel.

The congressionally created National Commission on Military, National and Public Service issued its final report last year. It said requiring women to register would be “a necessary and fair step, making it possible to draw on the talent of a unified Nation in a time of national emergency.”

Reed has championed the historic change. 

On the House Armed Services Committee, a similar push has been underway for years, with California Democrat Jackie Speier, chair of the Military Personnel Subcommittee, also backing the move.

Washington Democrat Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services panel, said at a hearing in May that he supports, in principle, the proposal for women to register but wants to learn more about it. 

Lighting up the right

But the most conservative wing of the Republican Party has long recoiled at the notion of signing up women for even a potential draft, as the GOP senators’ tweets and comments make clear. 

Some Republican aides think there’s a chance the issue will stir up passions in the party’s base in the weeks ahead, with an eye on midterm elections next year.

Conservative groups such as the Family Research Council have long opposed the change. 

This week, when news broke that the Senate’s NDAA could include the provision, Rep. Chip Roy, a conservative Republican from Texas, retweeted a story about it with this comment: “No. Non-negotiable. Thanks.” 

Russ Vought, who was President Donald Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, retweeted a news story on the issue with the comment, “No, you are not drafting our daughters.”

One Senate Republican aide said it is still not precisely clear how much political impact this issue will have in the months ahead but noted, “This will light up the right.”

Meanwhile, a bicameral group of liberal and conservative lawmakers, in a letter Friday to House Armed Services leaders, called for an end to the Selective Service system itself, which the members called “expensive, wasteful, outdated, punitive, and unnecessary.” The letter came from Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Reps. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore. and Rodney Davis, R-Ill.