'Don't ask, don't tell' survey due, firing up debate

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 29, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The debate over the "don't ask don't tell" policy that bars gays from serving openly in the military will heat up Tuesday when the Pentagon issues a long-awaited report on how 400,000 members of the nation's military feel about repealing the restriction.

But it's hardly clear that Congress will react to that report, which is expected to show broad support for repeal, by voting to do away with the 17-year-old policy. Both proponents and opponents of the survey are using it as a rallying cry, and the conflict will be on full display when a key Senate committee holds hearings Wednesday.

"All eyes are on Congress to do the right thing," said Ty Walrod, co-founder of OutServe, a network of gays and lesbians who are actively serving in the military and oppose "don't ask, don't tell." "If repeal fails this time, yes, it will be a setback."

The House of Representatives voted for repeal earlier this year, but the Senate balked this fall. Many opponents, notably Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, say they want to see the Pentagon study but that their decision isn't just about how members of the military feel about repeal.

On Sunday, McCain blasted the repeal efforts as "a political promise made by an inexperienced president or candidate for presidency of the United States," referring to President Barack Obama, who has pledged to overturn the policy.

"Look, we're in two wars now," McCain said on CNN's "State of the Union." "I want to know the effect on battle effectiveness and morale, not how best to implement a change."

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have called for repeal, but they have not been joined by the heads of the individual services.

"This is not a social thing," Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant and an opponent of repeal, told fellow Marines earlier this month. "This is combat effectiveness. That's what the country pays Marines to do."

Many repeal advocates see this week as possibly their last best chance for years for ending "don't ask, don't tell." A federal court order issued in October that barred the Pentagon from enforcing the policy has been stayed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals until the government's appeal of the order is decided.

"We think the report will answer the questions for Republicans who are on the fence," Walrod said. "If repeal fails, I wouldn't be surprised to see other avenues pursued."

A McClatchy-Marist poll earlier this month found that the public is evenly divided on "don't ask, don't tell," with 48 percent opposed to repeal and 47 percent in favor.

The politics of repeal in the Senate are tricky as Congress tries to complete a laundry list of unfinished business before the December holidays and final adjournment. Democrats control 58 Senate seats, but when the 112th Congress convenes in January, the party will control only 53.

The Senate Armed Services Committee voted for repeal, 16-12. Sen. James Webb, D-Va., a Vietnam-era Marine Corps veteran, joined 11 Republicans in opposition, while Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, voted with Democrats in favor.

"If we don't get this job done this year, it may be years until we get another opportunity," said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., noted that supporters have methodically built support. The House voted 234-194 for repeal, with five Republicans joining 229 Democrats in the majority.

Two of the five lost their re-election bids, and next year, Republicans will control the House.

In February, Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that repeal "would be the right thing to do," and Defense Secretary Gates said he would work with Congress and the White House to overturn the policy.

As a result, said Klobuchar, "We've checked one big box, because the military leaders support the policy. There's just one more big box left to check."

Democratic leaders are firmly behind repeal. Current policy "treats the same class of people differently and this is, unequal," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

(Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this story.)

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