Nov 30, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Advocates use defense bill to expand military protections for women

Illustration of a soldier's helmet on an American flag heart.

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

While debate over this year's defense bill is dominated by topics like China, Afghanistan and a president's authority to declare war, a quieter experiment is also playing: Advocates are using the legislation to test expansions of protections for women in the military.

Why it matters: The Senate resumed consideration the National Defense Authorization Act this week. Democrats and Republicans continue to squabble over key amendments to the bill, threatening to delay the must-pass legislation.

  • Once the Senate completes its work, a conference committee must resolve differences with the version already passed by the House.

What we're watching: Several efforts to better accommodate women, or deal with issues that disproportionately impact them, are noteworthy in that their backing is markedly bipartisan — an aberration these days:

  • Parental leave: Both the Senate and House versions of the bill include provisions expanding paid-leave benefits for service members, including up to 12 weeks of parental leave in the case of birth, adoption or long-term foster placement of a child.
    • Currently, many service members only receive two to three weeks of parental leave, and foster parents don't receive any form of paid parental leave.
  • Women and the Selective Service: The bill includes a provision requiring all Americans ages 18-26 to sign up — regardless of their gender identification — to register for a military draft, but some conservative Republicans are pushing to strip the provision.
    • As the Senate considers amendments before a final vote, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-M0.), is leading a group of Republicans in a renewed effort to block it. It's not clear it has the numbers to stop it.
  • Sexual assault reform: The bill contains a bundle of provisions implementing the main recommendations suggested by a Pentagon-commissioned panel in just six months.
    • In late June, the Independent Review Commission (IRC) released a report with 82 recommendations about how the U.S. military could help prevent sexual assault in the armed forces — focused on accountability, prevention, climate and culture, and victim support.

What they're saying: "We need to lead by example," Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) told Axios.

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