Lawmaker wants OK from service chiefs in lifting of ‘don’t ask’

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Just when Democrats thought the thorny issue of repealing a ban on allowing gays to serve openly in the military had been resolved, a Republican lawmaker reopened the debate by calling for more military voices to have a say if, when and how the ban is lifted.

Rep. Duncan Hunter of California is expected to introduce legislation Wednesday that would require the heads of the four military branches to OK the planned lifting of the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in place since 1993.

A bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in December calls for the policy’s repeal after the president, secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that scrapping the ban would not hurt military readiness and effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention.

Mr. Obama, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen support the law and have vowed to overturn the ban as soon as possible before a court strikes down the policy, action they say would leave the armed services unprepared for the change.

But under Mr. Hunter’s measure, repeal would occur only after the chiefs of staff of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and the Marine Corps’ commandant, certified that the move “will not degrade the readiness, effectiveness, cohesion, and morale of combat arms units and personnel of the Armed Force under the officer’s jurisdiction engaged in combat, deployed to a combat theater, or preparing for deployment to a combat theater.”

“This [bill] would put the service chiefs in that discussion, as they should have been from the very beginning,” said Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper.

Mr. Hunter’s “point is we need to put them at the forefront of this process to ensure that they can provide a clear, candid assessment about whether or not the implementation is feasible at the moment, or whether it creates any type of impediment to combat ranks.”

Those against the repeal say that with the military waging a war in Afghanistan and winding down another in Iraq, now is not the time to force through a major policy change. Supporters counter that the 18-year-old policy is outdated and unjust and that repeal would not harm the armed services or undermine morale.

A Pentagon survey released in November found that about two-thirds of troops don’t care if the ban is lifted. Of the 30 percent who objected, most were in combat units.

But Marine Corp Commandant Gen. James Amos has opposed the new law, saying lifting the ban during wartime could be a distraction and cost lives. Army General George W. Casey Jr. and Air Force General Norton A. Schwartz also have expressed reservations about the change.

“The service chiefs stated they had strong concerns with implementation, indicating it’s going to take away time and attention and funding all better directed at winning the war in Afghanistan,” Mr. Kasper said.

Mr. Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, served two combat tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan as a Marine before he was first elected to Congress in 2008.

The Republican’s proposal faces an uphill battle to become law. While his party controls the House, the measure likely would face stiff opposition in the Democrat-controlled Senate and from the White House.

A similar measure pushed last month by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, quickly died in the chamber.

Some view Mr. Hunter’s proposal as somewhat redundant, because Adm. Mullen and Mr. Gates have indicated that service chiefs will be consulted during the evaluation process to repeal the ban.

“I see this as a last-gasp effort by Congressman Hunter to show us all he’s on the wrong side of history,” said Winnie Stachelberg of the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank.

Ms. Stachelberg said she doubts the bill will make it out of the House and even may die at the committee level.

“There are far more pressing issues facing our national security, our troops and military families than whether we should add four additional individuals to a certification progress that already includes their boss,” she said.

Peter W. Singer, a defense expert with the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington think tank, said Mr. Hunter’s proposal is little more than a symbolic move to prolong a debate that is over.

“How long do we want to drag this out?” he said. “One of the lessons we’ve learned from other countries that have gone through this is to make a decision and implement it quickly.”

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