Sen. John McCain of Arizona led a group of skeptical Republicans questioning a new Pentagon report that supports the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays serving in the military.
Lawmakers got their first opportunity Thursday to question top Pentagon officials on Capitol Hill about the findings of a much-anticipated study released Tuesday, focusing largely on the possible timeline for such a change and its potential impact on military operations, especially on front-line combat units.
Mr. McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, emerged as the chief critic of the report and Democrats' efforts to repeal the Clinton-era policy on gays serving openly in the military.
"I am not saying this law should never change," Mr. McCain said. "I am simply saying that it may be premature to make such a change at this time and in this manner."
But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen defended the recommendation and urged Congress to act and not leave the matter to the courts. Adm. Mullen bristled at one point when it was suggested his opinion was less valuable than that of commanders directly dealing with troops.
"You do not have to agree with me on this issue," Adm. Mullen told Mr. McCain. "But don't think for one moment that I haven't carefully considered the impact of the advice I give on those who will have to live with the decisions that advice informs."
A second day of hearings Friday could produce new drama as the leaders of the four services - the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy - will testify. The most anticipated testimony Friday will likely be from Marine Commandant James F. Amos, who has openly questioned the call for repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
In pressing for quick congressional action, Mr. Gates said a legal decision to end the policy would give military leaders "zero time" to prepare.
"This would by far be the most disruptive and dangerous scenario I can imagine," he said. "It's important that we act now, this month."
In September, a district court judge banned the military from enforcing the policy. However, a federal appeals court in October froze the judge's orders until at least next month. In addition, the gay rights group Log Cabin Republicans has filed a lawsuit to overturn the ban.
Adm. Mullen challenged Mr. McCain's argument that the policy should not be changed while American troops are fighting on the ground in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
"There couldn't be a better time," the admiral said. "We have better leaders than at any other time. Making a change like this makes us better. ... War does not stifle change."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has vowed to fulfill President Obama's campaign promise to repeal the ban and bring the issue to a vote during the current lame-duck session.
Mr. McCain has been among the most outspoken critics of repealing "don't ask, don't tell," but had said he would consider the study findings before making a final decision.
The House passed legislation in May that including a provision for the Pentagon to repeal the 18-year old ban.
Sen. Jim Webb was among many of those who testified in the five-hour hearing to laud Pentagon officials and the 10-month study.
"This is the most crucial piece of information we have in moving forward," said Mr. Webb, Virginia Democrat and, like Mr. McCain, a veteran who served in the Vietnam War.
About 2.5 percent of the military population is gay, about the same as the U.S. population, according to the Pentagon survey. While the study found a majority of service members favored repeal, skepticism ran much higher among front-line combat troops.
GOP Sen. John Thune along with Mr. McCain and other Republicans on the committee expressed concern about the impact of soldiers serving in combat.
"Combat effectiveness and combat readiness is really the issue here," said Mr. Thune, a South Dakota Republican.
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