WASHINGTON -- With a nod to the active role played by servicewomen in the Persian Gulf war, the Senate voted yesterday to throw out a 43-year-old law banning Air Force and Navy women from flying combat missions.
Lawmakers also voted to allow the defense secretary to test women in other combat roles.
The pilots' statute was overturned on a voice vote as the Senate followed in the footsteps of the House, which has already approved a similar provision.
If signed into law by the president, their action would give the Air Force and Navy authority to make their own rules on female pilots.
"Women should be allowed to play a full role in our national defense, free of any arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who went on to characterize the existing regulations as "antiquated" and "Neanderthal."
Yesterday's vote would put the Air Force and Navy -- which includes the Marine Corps -- on the same legal footing as the Army, which has not been restrained by law from allowing women to fly combat missions. The Army, however, has not allowed women to fill combat roles of any kind.
Air Force officials have indicated support for allowing women to fly combat missions, as has the secretary of the Navy. The Navy's military command, however, has continued to express opposition to the idea.
It was the first of many issues as the Senate buckled down yesterday to work on a $290.7 billion defense authorization bill for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The Senate's final text, set to be completed before lawmakers leave town the end of the week for a monthlong recess, must be reconciled with a House version before being sent on to President Bush.
Following the vote on female pilots, the Senate considered proposals that would pare back Mr. Bush's $5.2 billion request for the Strategic Defense Initiative; construct a missile-defense system to defend U.S. cities against a limited missile attack; cut the president's $4.8 billion request for four more B-2 stealth bombers; and require U.S. military hospitals overseas to offer military women abortions.
The defense bill would also add $194 million to enhance tactical intelligence for military commanders -- an attempt to satisfy complaints by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of Operation Desert Storm, about a dearth of "real-time" intelligence from the battlefield -- and allocate $651 million to build 12 MX ballistic missiles never asked for by the Bush administration.
Yesterday's voice vote on the issue of female pilots came after a complex series of votes suggesting broad support for overhaul of the Pentagon's personnel policies. Before agreeing to kill the 1948 law, the Senate voted 96-3 to create a commission to study the role of women in combat and effectively voted 69-30 to support the repeal provision.
Both of Maryland's senators voted with the majority on each vote.
Under the terms of the Senate's bill, the commission is to finish its work by November 1992. President Bush would then submit his recommendations to Congress by Dec. 15, 1992. In the meantime, the Defense Department could permit women to participate in combat.
Because of that last clause, a few of the commission's sponsors argued against repeal of the 1948 law, contending that controlled experimentation with sexual equality was needed before any final decisions were made.
"It gets the cart before the horse," stated Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot who saw combat in Korea. "We need to study this issue carefully and fully before moving on it."