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“We’re all in agreement that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is at odds with the core value of our military,” Mr. Nix said. “In terms of the one-year study, it’s a little too long. There are already plenty of studies. Other countries have done it in three to four months.”

A 1990s study by the Rand Corp. found that allowing gays to serve openly had no harmful effects in other nations, Mr. Nix said. Canada, Britain, France and Israel allow gays to serve openly in their militaries, and Rand said it found no impact, he said.

Mr. Gates said he has asked Pentagon officials to make recommendations within 45 days, noting that “we have a degree of latitude within the existing law to change our internal procedures in a manner that is more appropriate and fair to our men and women in uniform.”

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was “deeply disappointed” with the move to repeal the law.

Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader in the House, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “in the middle of two wars and in the middle of this giant security threat, why would we want to get into this debate?”

Despite the fact that many oppose the changes, Adm. Mullen said he has served with gay service members since 1968 and that “allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do.”

“However, while the Pentagon is studying the issue, Congress can act at the same time on a legislative repeal this year,” Adm. Mullen said. “Both can happen simultaneously.”

Mrs. Donnelly said the testimony delivered by Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen is “an irresponsible plan that would incrementally eviscerate the law by unilaterally suspending its enforcement for specious reasons.”

A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the military ranks are not happy that they might be asked to change policy at this time.

“It was a difficult year and even more difficult to balance out a number of issues, including the wars and gay rights,” the defense official said. “This will be a historical change, and not everyone is happy with it.”

Adm. Mullen said that although he thought “the great young men and women of our military can and would accommodate such a change,” he wasn’t certain.

“Nor do I know for a fact how we would best make such a major policy change in a time of two wars,” he added.