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Military Chiefs to Offer Stance on Gay Ban After Pentagon Study

Arizona Senator John McCain
Arizona Senator John McCain said, “I am not saying this law should never change.” Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

U.S. military chiefs will testify today whether they support the prohibition on openly gay service members, days after a Defense Department study determined that repealing the ban poses a “low risk” to the effectiveness of the armed forces.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will hear from the commanders of the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marine Corps, all of whom had told Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the panel, in May that they opposed ending the policy until the Pentagon study was completed. Marine Corps General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will also speak at the hearing.

The House of Representatives approved the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law earlier this year. Democrats will need at least two Republicans to reach the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster threat and bring the measure to the floor.

McCain has led the opposition to changing the 1993 law prohibiting military service by openly gay men and women. He and most other Republicans on the committee weren’t swayed by the arguments in favor of repeal put forward yesterday by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, in the first day of hearings.

“I am concerned about the impact of a rush to repeal when even this survey has found that such a significant number of our service members feel that it would negatively impact military effectiveness,” McCain, a former Navy pilot, said yesterday.

Lame-Duck Business

The legislation risks getting caught in the crush of business in the lame-duck session, which includes debates over tax cuts, unemployment benefits and a nuclear-arms treaty with Russia. When the next session of Congress convenes in January with new members elected last month, Democrats will lose control of the House and have a smaller majority in the Senate.

Gates and Mullen testified that, overall, the study indicates that the risk of change is low and that “a solid majority” of service members said repeal wouldn’t have a negative impact. Gates said concerns of combat troops do not present an “insurmountable barrier” to a successful repeal.

McCain highlighted survey results showing that members of combat units and Marines were more likely than other service members to say that letting gays serve openly would hurt military effectiveness. Other Republicans were also resistant.

“I’m inclined to the personal view that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ has been pretty effective, and I’m dubious about the change,” Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions said.

Two Possible Republicans

Two Republicans -- the number needed to reach the votes required for floor action -- showed some signs of backing a lifting of the ban.

Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins, who voted for the repeal measure in committee earlier this year, cited a soldier’s comments in the study that “no one cared” that a member of his unit was gay. “He’s big, he’s mean and he kills lots of bad guys,” Collins quoted the soldier as saying.

In a written statement, Collins said she would vote to bring the measure to the Senate floor if the Democratic leadership “allows sufficient debate and amendments.”

Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, also a committee member, plans to issue a statement today, after the second day of hearings, on whether he will back repeal, spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said.

“I’ve been to many funerals, unfortunately, in my home state for those soldiers, and one thing I never asked was ‘Are they gay or straight?’” Brown said during the hearing yesterday.

‘Some Urgency’

Gates told the committee that congressional action to end the ban is a “matter of some urgency.” He cited concern that a federal court may order an immediate end to the policy, rather than leaving the Pentagon time to implement needed policies and training. That, Gates said, is the “most dangerous and damaging scenario I can imagine.”

A federal trial judge in September declared the ban unconstitutional. The Supreme Court last month allowed the law to remain in effect during appeals.

“Our basic assessment is that our military can make this change, provided we do so in an orderly and reasonable manner,” Jeh Johnson, the Defense Department general counsel who was one of the study’s leaders, told the committee yesterday. “Our plea to the Congress is to not leave the fate of this law to the courts.”

Army General Carter Ham, the other study leader, said he was “very concerned” that the courts may overturn the ban.

“It is time to move from debate and discussion to decision and implementation,” Ham, who is the top U.S. Army commander in Europe and has been nominated to become the next head of the military’s Africa Command, told the committee in response to a question from McCain. “So yes, sir, I think it is time to change.”

Survey Findings

A survey that underpinned the study found that while most military personnel said repealing the ban would have either a positive effect, little effect or no impact at all, 40 percent to 60 percent of respondents from the Marine Corps and largely all-male combat units said it would have negative repercussions.

Mullen, the president’s chief military adviser, said the shift probably would occur “with less turbulence” than opponents predict. In February, he told the committee that he can’t support a ban that requires troops to hide who they are.

“In fact, it may be the combat arms community that proves the most effective at managing this change, disciplined as they are,” Mullen said yesterday.

‘Dangerous Path’

McCain and Mississippi Republican Senator Roger Wicker questioned the Pentagon leaders about why the survey didn’t directly ask service members whether they supported repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Gates told Wicker that that polling soldiers on policy matters “is a very dangerous path.”

“Are you going to ask them if they want 15-month tours?” Gates said. “Are you going to ask them if they want to be part of the surge in Iraq? That’s not the way our civilian-led military has ever worked.”

Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said the Pentagon study, which was released Nov. 30, “demonstrates that for the vast majority of our troops, this change would be no big deal.”

Levin pointed to study findings that most service members who worked with colleagues they believed to be gay said they didn’t see damage to their unit’s effectiveness.

“Real-world experience is a powerful antidote to the stereotypes that are a major source of the discomfort some feel about ending ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” Levin said.

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