A House committee slashed two major procurement programs and, in recognition of women's increasing prominence on the battlefield, gave the military the green light to assign female pilots to combat missions.

"Pinch me," Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., sponsor of the female combat measure, said Wednesday shortly after the House Armed Services Committee adopted it by voice vote with little resistance.The measure allowing - but not requiring - the secretaries of the Navy and Air Force to assign women to fly Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft in combat was included in a $291 billion military budget bill.

The blueprint for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 also slashes spending on the Strategic Defense Initiative, eliminates the proposed purchase four additional B-2 stealth bombers and cuts active-duty troop strength by 106,000.

Meeting in closed session, the committee approved the overall package, 45-6. The full House is expected to take up the legislation later this month.

The bill approves programs and sets spending ceilings. The actual money is provided in appropriations bills adopted separately.

Under current law, women in the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force are barred from serving in combat roles. The Army is not covered under the same statute but has written its own regulations in line with the law.

The role of women in the U.S. invasion of Panama and the recent Persian Gulf war has forced lawmakers to rethink the ban as women have faced enemy fire.

Of the approximately 540,000 U.S. military personnel who served in the gulf, 35,000 were women, the Defense Department said.