WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain attacked President Barack Obama's drive to repeal the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" law as premature Thursday and labeled as flawed a Pentagon study that shows a majority of troops think changing the law wouldn't hurt their combat abilities.
The Arizona Republican's salvo at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing signaled trouble for Democratic hopes of a swift repeal of the 17-year-old Clinton-era law that bars gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed services.
"I remain concerned, as I have in the past and as demonstrated in this study, that the closer we get to service members in combat, the more we encounter concerns on whether 'don't ask, don't tell' should be repealed and what impact that would have on the ability of these units to perform their missions," McCain said. "These views should not be considered lightly, especially considering how much combat our forces face."
McCain's comments challenged testimony by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told the committee that the law could be repealed without hurting U.S. military capabilities.
"This can be done, and it should be done, without posing a serious risk to military readiness," Gates testified.
Mullen added: "I believe our troops and their families are ready for this. Most of them already believe they serve or have served alongside gays and lesbians."
Most Democrats on the committee agreed, saying repealing the law is simply a matter of doing what's right.
"'Don't ask, don't tell' is an injustice to thousands of patriotic Americans who seek only the chance to serve the country they love without having to conceal their sexual orientation," said Carl Levin, D-Mich, the committee's chairman.
"Anyone who believes that maintaining this policy is necessary to preserve our military's fighting effectiveness should read this report."
More than 115,000 soldiers, sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel responded to the eight-month-long study. Seventy percent said they thought there would be no effect or positive effect from lifting the ban of gays and lesbians serving openly.
But reservations were high among combat units, with 58 percent of Marines and 48 percent of Army respondents saying lifting the ban would have negative consequences. A substantial minority also said repeal could affect morale, training and whether they would stay in the military. Marines voiced the loudest opposition, the survey found.
McCain, a former Navy pilot who was a POW during the Vietnam war, said that the survey's response rate of 28 percent — 115,000 of 400,000 service members whose opinions were sought — was too small and included almost no troops in combat areas. McCain also strongly suggested that the move to change the law was more about politics than policy.
"I'm troubled by the fact that this report represents the input of 28 percent of the force who received the questionnaire," McCain said. "That is only 6 percent of the force at large, I find it hard to view that as a fully representative sample set, but I am nonetheless weighing the contents of this reports on their merits."
The Armed Services Committee's Democratic staff disputed McCain's claims. They said that combat troops did participate in the survey — just not while they were engaged in combat. Information exchange forums — town hall meeting-type events — weren't conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to committee staff.
But they were held at places such as Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Benning, Ga.; Camp Lejeune, N.C.; and other military installations where large numbers of troops who had deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan one or more times, or were preparing to be deployed, were stationed.
The hearing became testy at one point when McCain assailed Mullen for having not asked military members specifically whether the "don't ask, don't tell" policy should be overturned.
Mullen responded that while he cares about the views of service members, the military is not a democracy.
"I fundamentally, sir, think it's an incredibly bad precedent to ask them about, you know, to essentially vote on policy," Mullen told McCain.
Mullen said that while lifting the ban might make some soldiers and Marines leave the military, repealing the law would make the military better. And he said it wouldn't affect the two wars the military is currently fighting.
Among the steps the military would take to mitigate possible negative impact from a repeal, if Congress enacts one, would be a more gradual implementation in deployed units so that commanders' attention can remain focused on combat, and not on the training and education that the Pentagon says will be needed for successfully incorporating openly gat people into the services.
In addition, the Pentagon is also proposing limiting housing benefits to married heterosexual couples only, while other military benefits, such as health insurance, would be made available to same-sex partners of service members.
Gates and Mullen urged Congress to take both deliberate and swift action in repealing "don't ask, don't tell." Lawmakers need to be deliberate to insure that any repeal is done properly.
But it also must be done quickly, they said, before the courts try to change the law. In one recent case, an order in California stopped the enforcement of the ban worldwide for eight days in October before an appeals court stayed it.
"The legal uncertainty is not going to go away any time soon," said Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon's general counsel. "Our plea to the Congress is not to leave the fate of this law to the courts."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has promised a vote on "don't ask, don't tell" but, with Republican opposition and with the lame duck session of Congress rapidly coming to an end, its unlikely that a vote will happen.
McCain left open a sliver of daylight that he could shift his opposition to repeal.
"I'm not saying this law should never change," he said. "I am simply saying it may be premature to make such a change at this time and in this manner without further consideration of this report and further study of this issue by Congress."
That didn't appear to wash with Gates.
"If not now, when?" he asked in later questioning. "When we're out of Afghanistan? If I look ahead in the world, I don't see the world getting to be a safer, easier place to live in where our troops are necessarily under less stress."
(Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report.)
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