WASHINGTON — It's time to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and allow gay troops to serve openly for the first time in history, the nation's top defense officials declared Tuesday, with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff proclaiming that service members should not be forced to "lie about who they are."
However, both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, asked for a year to study the impact before Congress would lift the controversial policy.
Reversing the Pentagon's 17-year-old policy toward gays "comes down to integrity," for the military as an institution as well as the service members themselves, Mullen told a Senate hearing. Unpersuaded, several Republican senators said they would oppose any congressional effort to repeal the policy.
Ten months before voters elect a new Congress, some Democratic leaders also were leery of trying to change the policy this year, when both sides concede Republicans are likely to pick up seats, especially after GOP Sen.-elect Scott Brown's surprise victory last month in Massachusetts.
Repealing don't-ask-don't-tell is not a winning campaign strategy for a party under siege especially in the South and Midwest.
"What do I want members to do in their districts? I want them to focus on jobs and fiscal responsibility," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., classifying gays in the military in a category of "a lot of other issues" that will invariably come up.
"It's never a good year" for Democrats to bring up the controversial policy, said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. "You can expect that it's going to be a rough ride."
The Pentagon announced an 11-month review of how the ban could be lifted, as President Barack Obama has said he will work to do. But there is no deadline for ending the policy that dates to President Bill Clinton's tenure and that gay rights advocates are pressing to overturn.
In the meantime, Gates announced plans to loosen enforcement rules for the policy, which says, in essence, that gays may serve so long as they keep their sexuality private.
Obama has called for repeal but has done little in his first year in office to advance that goal. If he succeeds, it would mark the biggest shakeup to military personnel policies since President Harry S. Truman's 1948 executive order integrating the services.
Homosexuality has never been openly tolerated in the American military, and the 1993 policy was intended to be a compromise that let gay men and women serve so long as they stayed silent about their sexuality. Clinton had wanted to repeal the ban entirely, but the military and many in Congress argued that doing so would dangerously disrupt order.
Repealing the ban would take an act of Congress, something that does not appear close to happening.
Gates drew unusually pointed criticism from Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee for saying the review would examine how, not whether, to repeal the ban. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the panel, icily told Gates he was disappointed in his position and suggested the Pentagon was usurping Congress' job.
"Has this policy been ideal? No, it has not," McCain said. "But it has been effective."
Mullen looked pained when Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., suggested that the Joint Chiefs chairman had preordained the outcome of any study by signaling his own opposition to the ban.
"This is about leadership, and I take that very, very seriously," Mullen replied, tightlipped.
Tuesday's session gave Obama high-level cover on a divisive social issue complicated by the strains on an all-volunteer military force fighting two wars.
Gates, who says he is a Republican, is the only member of former President George W. Bush's Cabinet whom Obama asked to stay on. He has gained a reputation for both candor and caution. Mullen's words were a forceful endorsement from a careful man, and his very appearance, starched uniform and four stars on view, made a statement as well.
Gates said change was inevitable and called for a yearlong internal study into how it would occur.
He told the senators he understood that any change in the law was up to them. But he made it clear he believes it is time to do away with the 1993 policy, and by implication the outright ban on gay service that preceded it. Alongside Mullen, that put the Pentagon's top leadership at odds with uniformed leaders a rung or two below, as well as with senior members of Congress.
"No matter how I look at the issue," Mullen said, "I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens." Noting that he was speaking for himself and not for the other service chiefs, Mullen added: "For me, it comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals and ours as an institution."
Gates has appointed a four-star Army general, Carter Ham, and his own chief legal counsel, Jeh Johnson, to conduct the assessment. He also has requested legal advice on how the military can relax enforcement standards of the current policy.
McCain, the ranking Republican on the panel, bristled at the Pentagon decision to pursue the study, saying he was "deeply disappointed" and calling the assessment "clearly biased" in presuming the law should be changed.
For their part, Democrats hailed the internal review but suggested they wouldn't wait too long. Sen. Carl Levin, the committee's chairman and a Michigan Democrat who has long opposed the ban, said he was considering legislation this year that would temporarily suspend dismissals of gays under the current policy until a full repeal could be passed.
Democrat Mark Udall said his Colorado constituents pride themselves on allowing others to live and let live.
"You don't have to be straight to shoot straight," said Udall, quoting longtime Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater.
The tenor of the hearings could change significantly when lawmakers hear from other senior military officials. Each of the service chiefs is expected to testify this month on his 2011 budget, and the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Conway, is said to have serious concerns about the upheaval that a change to "don't ask, don't tell" could cause.
Rep. Ike Skelton, a conservative Democrat from Missouri who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, says he thinks it would be ill-advised to pursue such a major shakeup at a time when forces are consumed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mullen said it was his sense that rank-and-file troops would support the change.
"I have served with homosexuals since 1968," Mullen said in response to questions from Sessions. "There are a number of things cumulatively that get me to this position."