- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Conservative activists and retired military officers called on Democratic leaders to pull back from efforts to make it easier for gays to serve openly in the military, and a tepid response from some Democratic lawmakers cast doubt on its prospects for passage in a volatile midterm election year.

“Those that are pushing for this change are afraid that come November, they will no longer have the majority they need to push this through,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. “They’re not looking at whether this is good for the military. This is a purely political decision.”

Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, voiced support for the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and asked Congress to “avoid jumping the gun.” The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said the Pentagon should be given until its Dec. 1 deadline to develop a plan to handle the law’s possible repeal.

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“My position on this issue has been clear: I support the current policy, and I will oppose any amendment to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ” he said.

Several other lawmakers spoke similarly, saying it would be wrong for Congress to vote on the issue until the Pentagon completes its report. Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, “I see no reason for the political process to pre-empt it.”

Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Conference, agreed and added that “the American people don’t want the American military to be used to advance a liberal political agenda.”

Gay-rights groups fired back, urging quick congressional approval to fulfill President Obama’s campaign promise to eliminate the 17-year-old policy.

“Without a repeal vote by Congress this year, the Pentagon’s hands are tied, and the armed forces will be forced to continue adhering to the discriminatory … law,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign.

With a House vote looming as early as Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Tuesday gave grudging support to language in a proposed amendment that would overturn the 1993 congressional ban on open homosexuality, though it also says the military can decide when and how to implement a new policy.

Depending on the circumstances, the proposal either could mean that the military could be allowed to slow-walk studying the issue until the political climate changes or that the military could be ordered to toe the line on the issue by a determined commander in chief.

Mr. Gates “continues to believe that ideally the [Defense Department] review should be completed before there is any legislation” changing the law, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Tuesday.

However, Mr. Morrell stopped short of stating outright opposition from his boss, saying, “with Congress indicating that is not possible, the secretary can accept the language in the proposed amendment.”

Mr. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said the ban should be lifted, though there has been much public criticism from retired military officers, who are freer to oppose a commander in chief than are active-duty military and Cabinet members.

The White House initially hinted that it would prefer waiting for legislation until after the Pentagon’s report. But with the House and Senate working this month to complete their annual defense authorization bills, Democrats saw an opportunity to repeal the policy.

“I don’t think it came out of nowhere,” said Winnie Stachelberg, senior vice president for external affairs at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think thank. “Rather than this being something hastily put together, it’s in fact been quite methodically and strategically planned to honor our troops and the Pentagon’s process and take advantage of the legislative calendar.”

Rep. Patrick J. Murphy, Pennsylvania Democrat and an Iraq war veteran, was expected to introduce the legislation as an amendment to a defense authorization bill. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was expected to offer the amendment in the Senate as part of the same bill.

Mr. Murphy said he and other lawmakers have been working the issue for months and were confident it could pass both the House and the Senate.

“We need to get this done, and we need to get it done now,” Mr. Murphy said. “We are moving forward.”

The 1993 law, enacted early in President Clinton’s administration, made into statutory law what had only been a Pentagon policy, that homosexuality was incompatible with military service. After signing the ban, Mr. Clinton also ordered the “don’t ask, don’t tell” implementation policy, which prohibits the military from asking service members whether they are gay and requires that gay troops not discuss their sexual orientation.

The bill’s chances of passing Congress are unclear, as most Republicans would oppose it and many Democrats say they aren’t sure. But the administration’s lukewarm endorsement may not win over conservative Democrats, particularly those in the Senate who say they want to wait before moving to repeal - but one important Republican senator is already backing the change.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, considered a critical vote on the issue, says she will support the repeal. Miss Collins is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is expected to vote Thursday on the defense bill.

Mr. Perkins and the Family Research Council also released the results Tuesday of a Zogby poll indicating almost 60 percent of Americans would prefer that the decision on whether gays should be allowed to serve openly be made by the military, not political leaders. A further 18 percent said they were not sure, while 23 percent favored a decision by the political branches of government.

Mr. Perkins said the move was an overreach by Democrats looking to score political points with a loyal constituency, calling the process a “political charade” that should outrage the American people. He also said that lifting the ban would entrench homosexuality in the military.

“This is clearly a way to use the military as a radical political agenda. There have been no hearings on this issue, and this guarantees that there will not be,” he said. “Once something becomes approved and acceptable, then it is going to grow.”

Retired Lt. Col. Bob Maginnis, the Family Research Council’s senior fellow for national security, said repealing the ban has implications for recruitment, retention, health, privacy, living conditions and family issues throughout the services.

“Military life is not an 8-to-4 job,” he said. He said openly gay service members would disrupt the cohesion and discipline necessary on the front lines.

The two Family Research Council members were joined at a phone briefing by retired Gen. John Sheehan, who called the proposal a “troubling” move that would send a message that the military’s opinions do not matter.

However, Miss Stachelberg said that waiting for the Pentagon study isn’t necessary because its focus is on how best to repeal the policy, not whether it should be repealed.

“If you didn’t have a vote” repealing the law “before those findings are due, then the Pentagon would have to wait, and [the president] couldn’t even implement the policy that [the study] will have just developed,” she said.

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