To ease fears fueled by the Internet that the Bush administration has secret plans to reinstitute a military draft after the Nov. 2 election, House Republican leaders on Tuesday forced a floor vote on the issue and then watched with satisfaction as colleagues rejected the idea, 402-2.

“The administration … the Department of Defense … the House of Representatives clearly reject … returning to military conscription,” said Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., who as chairman of the military personnel subcommittee served as floor manager for a bill he opposed.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., had introduced HR 163 in January 2003, as U.S. forces gathered on the borders of Iraq. Rangel wanted to underscore the burden of a preemptive war on volunteers, a disproportionate number of whom, he argued, are racial minorities or from lower-income families.

If more American families had “kids going off to war,” Rangel said at the time, the president would be more reluctant to start one.

Before the Tuesday vote, Republicans and Democrats traded barbs on the floor about playing politics with an emotional issue for the nation.

Army officials, meanwhile, have confirmed that wartime demands prevent the service, for now, from shortening yearlong tours of duty for soldiers sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, even with 147,000 Army National Guard and Reserve forces still mobilized to support those wars.

“The Army, after doing its analysis, is looking at the possibility of doing less than 12-months tours, but that’s not something that can be done right now,” said Lt. Col. Gerard Healy, an Army spokesman. “And it’s not really anticipated to be happening anytime soon.”

The next rotation of soldiers into Iraq, set to occur from January through April, will stay at 12-month tours, said Healy. Developments that could shorten future tours, he said, include a slowdown in the pace of operations, more non-U.S. coalition forces or “greater participation by Iraqi forces” in securing their own country. Until some of that occurs, he said, the Army must stay with “12-month boots-on-the-ground rotations.”

Last month, before Army audiences, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had difficulty explaining why soldiers serve yearlong combat tours and Marines face only seven-month rotations.

“I say to myself ‘That doesn’t make a lot of sense,’” Rumsfeld conceded to soldiers Sept. 14 during a visit to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

The defense chief said he has met twice with the Army chief of staff and Marine Corps leaders to discuss tour lengths.

“The Marines argue vigorously that they have many more younger people who come in, serve [an enlistment] and leave. [So] their rotation rhythm is they can get seven months and then have those people go back and end up with 14 months” total deployment. In contrast, during their first enlistments, soldiers typically will serve only 12 months, Marines argued.

Rumsfeld said he challenged this two-tour versus one-tour argument, suggesting the extra movement of Marines was inefficient. But Marine Corps leaders countered that soldiers on 12-month tours are sent home anyway, for a two-week respite. Marines are not.

Rumsfeld said he also asked if it wasn’t inefficient to bring Marines home after only seven months and gaining “situational awareness.” Why not a year? If tours last longer than seven months, Marine leaders maintained, troops lose their focus and become less effective.

Both the Army and Marine Corps are “absolutely convinced” they’re right, said Rumsfeld, “and I am as uncertain of either as I was before.”

To laughter, he added, “Confession is good for the soul.”

But Rumsfeld said he is concerned about the effect on soldiers of seeing Marines rotating out “after seven months and thinking ‘They’re not pulling their oars.’ And so it is that disconnect that worries me.”

Later that day, at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, another soldier raised the same issue. This time Rumsfeld said that as the demand for U.S. soldiers eases in Iraq, the Army might be able to shift to six-month rotations.

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., one of only two lawmakers to vote for reinstituting the draft, cited the strain on ground forces during floor debate.

“We have 135,000 troops in Iraq right now. We are going to have to have 135,000 there for at least two years,” said Murtha, a retired Marine officer and a senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. With fewer troops coming from allies, with only 4,000 Iraqis being trained each month and many deserting, he said, “There is no way we are going to be able to do the fourth round of replacements without some kind of a draft.”

Republicans disagreed. What Murtha’s facts argue for is a bigger Army, not a conscripted Army, said McHugh, and Congress is moving in that direction. The House version of the 2005 defense authorization bill, he said, would add 40,000 additional ground forces over the next three years.

AF changes Vioxx order

In the wake of drug maker Merck’s recall of the popular arthritis drug Vioxx, the Air Force has rescinded a portion of a July 8 order that made Vioxx the only “cox-2 inhibitor” dispensed in base pharmacies.

The change doesn’t require Air Force pharmacies to include Celebrex or Bextra in their formularies, said Lt. Col. David Bobb, a deputy to the Air Force surgeon general. But, as before, facilities can choose to make them available, considering scope of local practice and their drug budgets.

Patients taking Vioxx should consult their physicians on a replacement and whether it’s safe to use what pills remain. Those who got Vioxx through military mail order or the Tricare retail network, and thus were charged a co-payment, should be able to return unused medicine and get a refund arranged by Merck, Bobb said.

A Merck study found long-term use of Vioxx raises the risk of heart attack.

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