President Obama’s first appointment to the Joint Chiefs of Staff is continuing, rather than settling, the divisive debate among the nation’s top military officers on gays in the military.
The disagreement comes as doubts grow over whether Democrats can muster enough votes in Congress’ lame-duck session next week to repeal the Pentagon ban on open gays, known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Pro-gay activists are sounding pessimistic, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is not guaranteeing a vote will happen.
Mr. Obama handpicked Gen. James Amos to be Marine Corps commandant, who replaced Gen. James T. Conway, considered the military’s most outspoken advocate for keeping the ban.
But Gen. Amos has not veered from Gen. Conway’s stance. He said during a trip to California that with troops fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now was not the time to change policy.
“There is nothing more intimate than young men and young women — and when you talk of infantry, we’re talking our young men — laying out, sleeping alongside of one another and sharing death, fear and loss of brothers,” Gen. Amos said on Saturday, according to the Associated Press. “I don’t know what the effect of that will be on cohesion. I mean, that’s what we’re looking at. It’s unit cohesion, it’s combat effectiveness.”
The remark stunned Adm. Michael Mullen, who as Joint Chiefs chairman is top military adviser to the president and who supports repeal.
“I was actually surprised,” Adm. Mullen said. “I was surprised what he said, surprised he said it publicly. And specifically, again, back to the commitment that’s been there which has been to come together based on several meetings that we’ve had, look at the data, and make our recommendations privately, which is where we are.”
Gen. Conway and the three other service chiefs had publicly already broken with the White House. They each sent letters to the Senate last summer urging there be no vote until a Pentagon study is done, thus opposing a White House compromise.
Gen. Amos’ statement will not help last-ditch efforts by Senate Democrats to garner the 60 votes needed to bring the 2011 defense and budget bill, which contains repeal, to the floor.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, reiterated he will again mount a filibuster if Sen. Reid tries to bring up repeal.
“Among other concerns, the senator remains opposed to the inclusion of the provision repealing the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law.” said Brooke Buchanan, Mr. McCain’s spokeswoman.
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told The Washington Times: “At this point, Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and Senator Reid seem intent on repealing ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ without allowing amendments or for the Senate to hold hearings after DoD completes its review,” said spokesman Don Stewart. “But if they do bring it up in the lame duck, and if it’s the same bill, we expect the same result.”
It was a reference to a comprehensive study ordered by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on how to integrate open gays in the ranks. One argument from Mr. McCain is that the Senate should not vote until the study is done and reviewed — a process that could run into the next Congress, when Republicans would then control the House and have six more Senate seats.
A Pentagon spokesman told The Times the report is due to Mr. Gates on Dec. 1, and that it is unclear when it will be delivered to Capitol Hill.
When Mr. Reid spoke with reporters after the election, he indicated he would not bring up the defense bill unless Republicans agree to limit debate.
“The problem we have with the defense-authorization bill is that it takes a while to get it done,” Mr. Reid said. “If we could get some agreement from the Republicans that we could move the bill without a lot of extraneous amendments, I think it’s something we could work out. Time agreements on a few amendments. That would be my goal.”
Aaron Belkin, who directs the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Palm Center, which does pro-gay research, is not optimistic.
“Republicans all seem to favor discrimination,” he said. “Even if [Sen. Susan] Collins flips, they need to have two votes, plus time for amendments and conference. That’s tough to do in one month.”
Miss Collins voted for repeal in committee, but joined in the filibuster because Mr. Reid would only allow two amendments.
“If the Senate doesn’t pass the military budget during the lame duck, it is going to be difficult to get repeal through the next Congress,” Mr. Belkin said.
If there is no repeal bill this year, that would leave the debate in the courts, where a district court judge in California has ordered the military to end the ban. A federal appeals court then blocked the order, at the Obama’s administration’s behest, as it weighs the Justice Department’s appeal.
If the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals orders the Pentagon to allow open gays, then the Obama administration could comply or petition the U.S. Supreme Court. The White House has said the issue should be settled by the president and Congress.
Mr. Gates raised the prospect this week that if Congress does not repeal the ban, the courts will.
Since the ban became law, as opposed to regulation, in 1993, at least eight federal appeals courts have rejected arguments to throw out the law. The Supreme Court has let the rulings stand.
“I would say that … leaving “don’t ask, don’t tell” behind us is inevitable,” Mr. Gates told ABC News. “The question is whether it is done by legislation that allows us to do it in a thoughtful and careful way, or whether it is struck down by the courts, because the recent court decisions are certainly pointing in that direction.”